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Why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering and why they are wrong

Filed under: — gavin @ 18 October 2009

Many commentators have already pointed out dozens of misquotes, misrepresentations and mistakes in the ‘Global Cooling’ chapter of the new book SuperFreakonomics by Ste[ph|v]ens Levitt and Dubner (see Joe Romm (parts I, II, III, IV, Stoat, Deltoid, UCS and Paul Krugman for details. Michael Tobis has a good piece on the difference between adaptation and geo-engineering). Unfortunately, Amazon has now turned off the ‘search inside’ function for this book, but you can read the relevant chapter for yourself here (via Brad DeLong). However, instead of simply listing errors already found by others, I’ll focus on why this chapter was possibly written in the first place. (For some background on geo-engineering, read our previous pieces: Climate Change methadone? and Geo-engineering in vogue, Also the Atlantic Monthly “Re-Engineering the Earth” article had a lot of quotes from our own Raypierre).

Paul Krugman probably has the main issue right:

…it looks like is that Levitt and Dubner have fallen into the trap of counterintuitiveness. For a long time, there’s been an accepted way for commentators on politics and to some extent economics to distinguish themselves: by shocking the bourgeoisie, in ways that of course aren’t really dangerous.


Clever snark like this can get you a long way in career terms — but the trick is knowing when to stop. It’s one thing to do this on relatively inconsequential media or cultural issues. But if you’re going to get into issues that are both important and the subject of serious study, like the fate of the planet, you’d better be very careful not to stray over the line between being counter-intuitive and being just plain, unforgivably wrong.

Levitt was on NPR at the weekend discussing this chapter (though not defending himself against any of the criticisms leveled above). He made the following two points which I think go to the heart of his thinking on this issue: “Why would anyone be against a cheap fix?” and “No problem has ever been solved by changing human behaviour” (possibly not exact quotes, but close enough). He also alluded to the switch over from horse-driven transport to internal combustion engines a hundred years ago as an example of a ‘cheap technological fix’ to the horse manure problem. I deal with each of these points in turn.

Is geo-engineering cheap?

The geo-engineering option that is being talked about here is the addition of SO2 to the stratosphere where it oxidises to SO4 (sulphate) aerosols which, since they are reflective, reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the ground. The zeroth order demonstration of this possibility is shown by the response of the climate to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 which caused a maximum 0.5ºC cooling a year or so later. Under business-as-usual scenarios, the radiative forcing we can expect from increasing CO2 by the end of the century are on the order of 4 to 8 W/m2 – requiring the equivalent to one to two Pinatubo’s every year if this kind of geo-engineering was the only response. And of course, you couldn’t stop until CO2 levels came back down (hundreds, if not thousands of years later) without hugely disruptive and rapid temperature rises. As Deltoid neatly puts it: “What could possibly go wrong?”.

The answer is plenty. Alan Robock discussed some of the issues here the last time this came up (umm… weeks ago). The basic issues over and above the costs of delivering the SO2 to the stratosphere are that a) once started you can’t stop without much more serious consequences so you are setting up a multi-centennial commitment to continually increasing spending (of course, if you want to stop because of huge disruption that geo-engineering might be causing, then you are pretty much toast), b) there would be a huge need for increased monitoring from the ground and space, c) who would be responsible for any unanticipated or anticipated side effects and how much would that cost?, and d) who decides when, where and how much this is used. For point ‘d’, consider how difficult it is now to come up with an international agreement on reducing emissions and then ponder the additional issues involved if India or China are concerned that geo-engineering will cause a persistent failure of the monsoon? None of these issues are trivial or cheap to deal with, and yet few are being accounted for in most popular discussions of the issue (including the chapter we are discussing here).

Is geo-engineering a fix?

In a word, no. To be fair, if the planet was a single column with completely homogeneous properties from the surface to the top of the atmosphere and the only free variable was the surface temperature, it would be fine. Unfortunately, the real world (still) has an ozone layer, winds that depend on temperature gradients that cause European winters to warm after volcanic eruptions, rainfall that depends on the solar heating at the surface of the ocean and decreases dramatically after eruptions, clouds that depend on the presence of condensation nuclei, plants that have specific preferences for direct or diffuse light, and marine life that relies on the fact that the ocean doesn’t dissolve calcium carbonate near the surface.

The point is that a planet with increased CO2 and ever-increasing levels of sulphates in the stratosphere is not going to be the same as one without either. The problem is that we don’t know more than roughly what such a planet would be like. The issues I listed above are the ‘known unknowns’ – things we know that we don’t know (to quote a recent US defense secretary). These are issues that have been raised in existing (very preliminary) simulations. There would almost certainly be ‘unknown unknowns’ – things we don’t yet know that we don’t know. A great example of that was the creation of the Antarctic polar ozone hole as a function of the increased amount of CFCs which was not predicted by any model beforehand because the chemistry involved (heterogeneous reactions on the surface of polar stratospheric cloud particles) hadn’t been thought about. There will very likely be ‘unknown unknowns’ to come under a standard business as usual scenario as well – another reason to avoid that too.

There is one further contradiction in the idea that geo-engineering is a fix. In order to proceed with such an intervention one would clearly need to rely absolutely on climate model simulations and have enormous confidence that they were correct (otherwise the danger of over-compensation is very real even if you decided to start off small). As with early attempts to steer hurricanes, the moment the planet did something unexpected, it is very likely the whole thing would be called off. It is precisely because climate modellers understand that climate models do not provide precise predictions that they have argued for a reduction in the forces driving climate change. The existence of a near-perfect climate model is therefore a sine qua non for responsible geo-engineering, but should such a model exist, it would likely alleviate the need for geo-engineering in the first place since we would know exactly what to prepare for and how to prevent it.

Does reducing global warming imply changing human behaviour and is that possible?

This is a more subtle question and it is sensible to break it down into questions of human nature and human actions. Human nature – the desire to strive for a better life, our inability to think rationally when trying to impress the objects of our desire, our natural selfishness and occasionally altruism, etc – is very unlikely to change anytime soon. But none of those attributes require the emission of fossil fuel-derived CO2 into the atmosphere, just as they don’t require us to pollute waterways, have lead in gasoline, use ozone-depleting chemicals in spray cans and fridges or let dogs foul the sidewalk. Nonetheless, societies in the developed world (with the possible exception of Paris) have succeeded in greatly reducing those unfortunate actions and it’s instructive to see how that happened.

The first thing to note is that these issues have not been dealt with by forcing people to think about the consequences every time they make a decision. Lead in fuel was reduced because of taxation measures that aligned peoples preferences for cheaper fuel with the societal interest in reducing lead pollution. While some early adopters of unleaded-fuel cars might have done it for environmental reasons, the vast majority of people did it first because it was cheaper, and second, because after a while there was no longer an option. The human action of releasing lead into the atmosphere while driving was very clearly changed.

In the 1980s, there were campaigns to raise awareness of the ozone-depletion problem that encouraged people to switch from CFC-propelled spray cans to cans with other propellants or roll-ons etc. While this may have made some difference to CFC levels, production levels were cut to zero by government mandates embedded in the Montreal Protocols and subsequent amendments. No-one needs to think about their spray can destroying the ozone layer any more.

I could go on, but the fundamental issue is that people’s actions can and do change all the time as a function of multiple pressures. Some of these are economic, some are ethical, some are societal (think about our changing attitudes towards smoking, domestic violence and drunk driving). Blanket declarations that human behaviour can’t possibly change to fix a problem are therefore just nonsense.

To be a little more charitable, it is possible that what was meant was that you can’t expect humans to consciously modify their behaviour all the time based on a desire to limit carbon emissions. This is very likely to be true. However, I am unaware of anyone who has proposed such a plan. Instead, almost all existing mitigation ideas rely on aligning individual self-interest with societal goals to reduce emissions – usually by installing some kind of carbon price or through mandates (such as the CAFE standards).

To give a clear example of the difference, let’s tackle the problem of leaving lights on in rooms where there is no-one around. This is a clear waste of energy and would be economically beneficial to reduce regardless of the implications for carbon emissions. We can take a direct moralistic approach – strong exhortations to people to always turn the lights off when they leave a room – but this is annoying, possibly only temporary and has only marginal success (in my experience). Alternatively, we can install motion-detectors that turn the lights out if there is no-one around. The cost of these detectors is much lower than cost of the electricity saved and no-one has to consciously worry about the issue any more. No-brainer, right? (As as aside, working out why this isn’t done more would be a much better use of Levitt and Dubner’s talents). The point is changing outcomes doesn’t necessarily mean forcing people to think about the right thing all the time, and that cheap fixes for some problems do indeed exist.

To recap, there is no direct link between what humans actually want to do and the emissions of CO2 or any other pollutant. If given appropriate incentives, people will make decisions that are collectively ‘the right thing’, while they themselves are often unconscious of that fact. The role of the economist should be to find ways to make that alignment of individual and collective interest easier, not to erroneously declare it can’t possibly be done.

What is the real lesson from the horse-to-automobile transition?

Around 1900, horse-drawn transport was the dominant mode of public and private, personal and commercial traffic in most cities. As economic activity was growing, the side-effects of horses’ dominance became ever more pressing. People often mention the issue of horse manure – picking it up and disposing of it, it’s role in spreading disease, the “intolerable stench” – but as McShane and Tarr explain that the noise and the impact of dead horses in the street were just as troublesome. Add to that the need for so many stables downtown taking up valuable city space, the provisioning of hay etc. it was clear that the benefits of the horse’s strength for moving things around came at a great cost.

But in the space of about 20 years all this vanished, to be replaced with electrified trolleys and subways, and internal combustion engine-driven buses and trucks, and cars such as the Model-T Ford. Almost overnight (in societal terms), something that had been at the heart of economic activity had been been relegated to a minority leisure pursuit.

This demonstrates very clearly that assumptions that society must always function the same economic way are false, and that in fact we can change the way we do business and live pretty quickly. This is good news. Of course, this transition was brought about by technological innovations and the switch was decided based on very clear cost-benefit calculations – while cars were initially more expensive than horses, their maintenance costs were less and the side effects (as they were understood at the time) were much less burdensome. Since the city had to tax the productive citizens in order to clear up the consequences of their own economic activity, the costs were being paid by the same people who benefited.

Levitt took this example to imply that technological fixes are therefore the solution to global warming (and the fix he apparently favours is geo-engineering mentioned above), but this is a misreading of the lesson here in at least two ways. Firstly, the switch to cars was not based on a covering up of the manure problem – a fix like that might have involved raised sidewalks, across city perfuming and fly-spraying – but from finding equivalent ways to get the same desired outcome (transport of goods and people) while avoiding undesired side-effects. That is much more analogous to switching to renewable energy sources than implementing geo-engineering.

His second error is in not appreciating the nature of the cost-benefit calculations. Imagine for instance that all of the horse manure and dead carcasses could have been easily swept into the rivers and were only a problem for people significantly downstream who lived in a different state or country. Much of the costs, public health issues, etc. would now be borne by the citizens of the downstream area who would not be benefiting from the economic prosperity of the city. Would the switch to automobiles have been as fast? Of course not. The higher initial cost of cars would only have made sense if the same people who were shelling out for the car would be able to cash in on the benefits of the reduced side effects. This is of course the basic issue we have with CO2. The people benefiting from fossil fuel based energy are not those likely to suffer from the consequences of CO2 emissions.

The correct lesson is in fact the same as the one mentioned above: if costs and benefits can be properly aligned (the ‘internalising of the externalities’ in economist-speak), societies and individuals can and will make the ‘right’ decisions, and this can lead to radical changes in very short periods of time. Thus far from being an argument for geo-engineering, this example is an object lesson in how economics might shape future decisions and society.


To conclude, the reasons why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering so much are based on a misreading of the science, a misrepresentation of proposed solutions, and truly bizarre interpretations of how environmental problems have been dealt with in the past. These are, in the end, much worse errors than their careless misquotes and over-eagerness to shock highlighted by the other critiques. Geo-engineering is neither cheap, nor a fix, and the reasons why it is very likely to be a bad idea are ethical and legal, much more than its still-uncertain scientific merits.

406 Responses to “Why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering and why they are wrong”

  1. 151
    Mark says:

    “The people saying that ’solution to CO2 problems’ will happen if we do ‘geo-engineering’ are apparently scientists. The question is then an economic and a political one. A cheap solution is better than an expensive one, all else being equal.”

    But they are not equal.

    Jam tomorrow again.

    Lots of these geoengineering projects are “if we get this and this and this done, then we can reduce CO2”.

    But the longer we wait to reverse the damage and the longer we carry on business as usual, the more expensive the cheap solution tomorrow will be.


    Or Opportunity costs.

    If we mitigate NOW we have more options later.

    Including geoengineering.

    But the geoengineering should be ***after*** we’ve solved the problem of doing the damage in the first place. Without that, geoengineering cannot fix our problems: we’d just do worse and hope the engineering will be up to the task.

  2. 152
    Dave Rado says:

    Re. mdc, #148:

    Neither coal nor renewables will replace oil. These are mass electricity generation systems, and oil is not used to generate electricity to any sigificant degree.

    Have you ever heard of electric cars? They couldn’t replace it completely but they could replace a very large proportion of it. The technology is already here, it just needs public investment in battery charging infrastructure, working with companies like Better Place.

  3. 153
    Ray Ladbury says:

    mdc, let me spellit out for you. You are claiming that making radical changes to the global economy is risky. I don’t disagree, but point out that it is inescapable due to the end of the petroleum era. It is not a question of whether the economy must change, but of how. If we emphasize renewables and noncarbon intensive technologies, we have a hope in hell of creating a sustainable economy. If we opt for coal, natural gas, tar sands, etc., we screw ourselves. That simple. Science or anti-science. Choose.

  4. 154
    Hank Roberts says:

    Michael Tobis and the Royal Society make the same important distinction

    — carbon management, which addresses all our problems, but slowly
    — radiation management, which addresses warming but not ocean pH

    Doing carbon management first doesn’t make radiation management harder.
    Doing radiation management first allows carbon mismanagement to worsen.

  5. 155
    Eli Rabett says:

    Making geoengineering work would require outfitting the IPCC with a shiny, but large, set of black helicopters. Something that the delayers might not like

  6. 156
    BJ_Chippindale says:

    We put a mirror in space in the 1960’s Mark. It wasn’t that hard. Echo 1a was launched in August 1960. 75 Kg.

    You are doing a big song-and-dance production about how hard this is and how expensive it is.

    You are wrong about whether we could do it even with the access to space we currently have. We could.

    You are wrong about whether we can get CATS. We’ve done all the hard work and compared to the scientific questions and unknowns about all the other geo-modification options it is quite straightforward engineering. Your rancor and ridicule is not called for mate… and your resorting to them is a clear indication that you don’t have a REAL argument.

    Finally, the entire point to any of these solutions is that they aren’t very likely to be used, or even taken seriously, until the AGW problem becomes so real that Joe Six-Pack recognizes the problem and tells Goldman-Sachs-The-Planet and Planet-EXxon (they must have one of their own stashed away somewhere to be so intent on trashing this one) to go stick it where the solar irradiance can’t isn’t measurable.

    That’s too late for any actual rational approach to succeed. Buying us time at that late juncture will work for us because at THAT point the delayers and deniers will be in hiding or strung up from convenient lampposts.

    I spend a LOT of time arguing for more controls on CO2 emissions and tougher limits but I recognize human nature. We have Buckley’s of getting enough “jam today” to make it work and you are using bad logic and worse argument to make a bad case to do nothing but try to make the members of the human species do something completely foreign to it. Cooperate as nations. I just testified in parliamentary special committee to try to put NZ back into the “marginally sane” column. Not sure it did any good at all.

    Which is EXACTLY my point. The “jam today” effort is completely at the mercy of politics. The population has not figured out the truth. We have to be ready to do whatever is necessary when it does because only when the people start tossing the deniers and delayers out of their cushy positions and DEMANDING action are you going to get any damned jam at all.

    … and it is too late at that point for simply reducing the CO2 emissions.


  7. 157
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re my 133 – my point about an emissions tax being elegant and making sense whether or not it significantly reduces emissions:

    1. I and many others would hope it does reduce emissions, or at least helps (along with some supporting policies).

    2. If the optimal trajectory is indeed an emissions reduction of size x(t) (taking into account the cost of the policy mechanism itself (includes bureacratic waste and corruption), which is likely small by comparison, unless someone really screws it up (by fiddling around with the package and granting too many special deals without justification…), then the tax justified by market economic principles is the tax that results in that size of emissions reduction x(t), as the free market is supposed to tend to optimize things.

    3. Even those who think adaptation or geoengineering are either better or more likely to happen should be able in principle to get behind such a tax because adaptation costs, direct losses, and geoengineering (should that be persued) should in fairness be compensated by the benificiaries of emitting activity.

    And so on if CCS/biochar/carbonate mineral production is chosen – in which case, obviously, effectively sequestered emissions (in so far as it is not to the detriment of some other thing) should be paid for at the same rate as the tax on emissions.


    About inelastic demand.

    I have an inelastic demand for chocolate (at least at the moment I thought to write this, I thought I did), and orange juice. And I have an inelastic demand to live further north than those things are generally produced (don’t like venomous ___, malaria, etc., enjoy snow and fall colors, don’t like heat and humidity (except when it leads to thunderstorms), some other stuff). Thus I will continue to pay more to transport chocolate and orange juice to where I live. But this needn’t be for oil – I would pay more to get them to me via solar-powered electric processes. I would also pay more if there is a worker fair wage issue. At least I like to think I would.


    Re 141 Dave Cooke “hence my suggestion that economic motivation is not going to be enough to make the necessary changes. Instead we need a new technology baseline, so lets get cracking…”

    Yes, and fast.

    That was interesting.

    But just to be clear, I think many people consider technological changes to be a change in human behavior (it requires humans deciding to invest in R&D, shift consumer demand among options, etc.). And an emissions tax or other such price signal should be an incentive to make progress in technology and strategy faster than otherwise.


    Just a thought, no math done on it, so maybe it’s a really bad idea, but if we were going to go space-based –

    Over thousands or perhaps millions of years (in preparation for Milankovitch cycles, changes in mantle convection and mountain building, the inexorable brightenning of the sun over geologic time), mirrors might be a way to go. Many small mass-produced mirrors might be launced with remote control gyroscopes and solar powered electric propulsion (or sailing on the solar wind with magnets or whatever they come up with). Some will be lost. But it wouldn’t be catastrophic. Except for the space junk issue… Although these would tend to be at one of those Lagrangian points (right term?)…

    Although for some of the same reasons as mentioned about SO2 injections, would any such scheme be eschewed in favor of riding out orbital cycle-forced changes (as those might occur more slowly than potential catastrophic failues of the geoengineering, and would benifit science with observational opportunities, and are part of the beauty of nature)?

    Over the short term, what about blasting some dust off an asteroid… Well, there’s the space junk issue, and if too many fell to Earth, there’s heating there, which would probably outweight any CO2-sequestration by Ca-bearing silicate mineral dust… oh well.

    I’m guessing the safest radiation-management strategy would be reflective balloons (also power stations) (wouldn’t do much) and tarps made of used candy and junk-food wrappers (another size problem)… And that still has problems.

  8. 158
    john frankis says:

    It’s a great piece Gavin.

    Most of the wrong-headed climate chapter in the book is inspired by what must have been a very big day out for the authors at Nathan Myhrvold’s “Intellectual Ventures”, a smart new firm where geoengineering fantasization seems to be the game the smarties play.

    In a NYT piece in desperate defence of the book’s manifold bloopers Myhrvold quips that “two wrongs don’t make a right”. Very true, that idea is actually the simplest put down of the entire class of geoengineering “solutions”. Geoengineering would purport to address the single (though probably most serious) negative aspect of fossil fuel burning – greenhouse warming enhancement – with a further anthropogenic intervention into natural systems that itself would be replete with at least several well understood negative externalities from day one, plus an unknowable number of others to rapidly become apparent as the non-solution was scaled up to any size capable of having therapeutic effect on the original problem.

    Somebody else recently referred to Heath Robinson machines and that’s the way the pictures play in my mind: mad gangs of bearded Myhrvold lookalikes scrambling about in a Leviathan maze of gears, levers, skyhooks and thingamebobs all belching smoke, rattling and wheezing, everything connected to everything else (in a funny way, not a good way), the whole just seconds away from collapsing into the smoking ruins of what was once the most beautiful blue planet in the Universe.

    Geoengineering is an all-but guaranteed way to make a bad situation worse by the same kind of half smart thinking that got you into trouble in the first place, of trying to extract yourself from the hole you’ve just dug by digging yourself in deeper. It’d be as Gavin has it, a spraying of scent over streets steaming with horse poo all because the political power of horse owners had proven greater than that of the far smarter and more useful automotive engineers. We can do better than these guys would have us believe.

  9. 159


    ultimately millions in the third world are going to die due to lost development that is instead used to pay for CO2 reduction

    Ultimately human civilization as a whole is going to die, within about 40 years, if we do nothing to stop global warming, and that will result in a hell of a lot more deaths than mitigating CO2 will. In 1970 12% of the Earth’s land surface was “severely dry” by the Palmer Drought Severity Index. In 2002 that figure was 30% (Dai et al. 2004). People tend to die when they have no food to eat.

  10. 160
    mdc says:

    Mark @ 151: I don’t know if you actually stopped reading my post where your quote cuts off, but just to be clear: I don’t think ‘all else is equal’. What I’m not convinced of is that avoiding these additional harms of geo-engineering are worth $1tn/year. As far as I am concerned this is a quantitative problem. Your claimed speed advantages for CO2 reductions (are you serious, by the way?) may be worth $1tn/year, or they may not, but it doesn’t seem at all obvious that they are.

    Dave Rado @ 152: Electric cars are a storage solution, not a generation solution. All you’ve done is moved the problem up one stage, to the bulk electricity generation (which is what I said, incidentally). I have my doubts about electric cars and the ability of state subsidies to radically improve technology with pretty fundamental limitations, but that’s another post.

    Ray Ladbury @ 153: Again, I don’t see what connection this has to my argument. Petroleum probably will increase in price until its use becomes much rarer than in the past. But I don’t see how this handwaves aside the costs of either:

    1. Removing non-oil sources of CO2.

    2. Phasing out oil before it ceases to be economically beneficial to use it.


    I’m glad my comments are generating such discussion ;) I think the best exposition of my views I’ve seen so far is given here – (not quoted or written by me, unfortunately).

  11. 161
    Alexander Harvey says:

    Re 133:



    “Because it just corrects an externality, after all. Imagine if fuel just happened to cost that much. It would, by the same logic, hurt the poor.”

    There is a major political difference between a tax rise and a price rise. You can vote out a tax rise.

    The UK government quite casually gave a tax break to the better off accompanied by a large percentage tax hike on the lowest paid. They had to turn all sorts of cart-wheels to try to unpick it but never did totally fix the injustice. It was not just the poor who thought it unjust.

    Also the political climate under which a government can legislate to produce a less worse future may be coming to an end. There is a limit to the number of times a government can lessen the quality of life, justified by scary projections into the future.

    My case is simple, I doubt that artificially inflating fuel prices justified by producing a less worse future could be sustained for the period necessary.


  12. 162
    Gail says:

    John Frankis, you make good points. Aside from the acidifying oceans, geoengineering also does nothing to halt and reduce the other effects of spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, namely that the toxins are causing rapidly increasing incidents of cancer, emphysema, asthma in humans – and animals now too – as well as poisoning vegetation. Do we have to wait until crops fail to notice that ozone and peroxyacetyl nitrates interfere with their ability to photosynthesize?

    Anybody who thinks we can find a technical fix out of this without ceasing to burn fuel, whether fossil or plant-based, is mad.

  13. 163
    Alexander Harvey says:

    Re my own 160:

    I really should have added a clarification: I doubt that it could be achieved without a revolutionary government.

    “We will force you to be green.”


  14. 164
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 133 and 156

    Hey Patrick,

    I would that your suggestion that you could use economics to change the technology infrastructure were true. If you were to total the cost of the infrastructure change for just one of the alternatives which could supply about 15% of the energy derived from Oil it would top 1 trillion dollars. By the same token if you were to take 15% of 83 million barrels of Oil at the target $70/barrel you would look at a daily cost of roughly $870 million daily or $320 billion annually.

    The issue is the $1 trillion substitute is only available for a maximum of 10 hours a day with an average of 7 hours active energy generation. Add in the cost of restructuring the current base to adapt to the new resource and you are looking at nearly a 5 year cost recovery with a 10 year implementation period. (The Electric car solution re-powered with solar.)

    Going further with a simpler solution, let us just change over the liquid fuel base to a different primary fuel. Say let’s replace 25% of gasoline with one of the various forms of alcohols. Ethanol or methanol doesn’t matter they are still going to require massive biomass to be placed in the digester.

    Matter of fact, you can likely add in a methane cycle to try to glean out the residual energy from the cellulose fibers through anaerobic activity. In BTU you are looking at a value per acre suggesting the necessity to offset nearly 30% or arable land, of which we are currently using 80% either follow or actively being used to produce food supplies. (20% of the arable land is actually used for housing believe it or not…)

    Not that I am saying this makes it impossible only that to convert the current systems to an alternative is unlikely to meet the current demands and usage cycles while you increase the costs of energy. In short you are only putting consumers of energy into an economic vise without offering a viable alternative.

    So what do you see as the path forward? Personally, I see that solar is next to perfect for Electricity as it is at it’s peak output when there is a peak demand made by businesses. That would at least reduce the coal demand by about 30%, if implemented universally. However, we need governments and industry to work together to actively make this conscious effort. Currently, most patents regarding Solar alternatives are held by Oil companies… maybe it is time to regulate corporations and write a few laws that prevent not only monopolies from forming; but, also prevent restricting competition.

    As to liquid/gaseous fuels, I am a big fan of CNG/LNG solutions, the primary output is water and CO2 and can be created out of waste biomass with the composted remains returning increasing hydrolyzation, and nutrients while returning carbon to the ground, the combination of which would promote further crop growth.

    In combination with Biomass NG and Mineral CNG actually is one of the better alternatives forward IMHO and even reduces the infrastructure costs. (The buried pipelines already exist for distribution. The only change would be a the dispensing station, with a relative cost on the order of 10% for the solar installation. The change-out for vehicles is the change of the fuel injectors to a CNG device and fuel tank conversion, or roughly $4000.00 for a conversion and less then $1000.00 modification in new vehicles. (See the Honda GX…) The point is if and when fuel cells come out the fuel infrastructure will already be in-place. If you wanted to drop the CO2 generation at that point you would only need to increase the solar banks and add hydrolysis systems to the grid.

    The issue I am no expert I am only a layman and have no say in the way forward. Even if you were to remove the nay sayers and congressional lobbyists to make this change, without bringing the industries forward or mandating a change (which is unlikely in a democratic society or even in a representative republic) there will be nothing more then thumb twiddling. Sad to say without the legislation outlawing the current technology it becomes a matter of horse to water… The issue is economics is no motivation, nor does government want to make a investment only to have it fall flat as the Earth underlying their plans shifts…

    Hence I repeat, rather then standing on the side of the road and claiming use the economic vise why not pave the way forward and direct the traffic to a new pathway…?

    Dave Cooke

    PS: Radiation management is not the way forward as has been pointed out by many much better at the technology then I. If you want to manage radiative content in the atmosphere you need to reduce the radiative sinks in the atmosphere… plain and simple… ldc (Though I did like the idea of calcium carbonate and aluminum sulfate dust being emitted by aircraft flying above 30k feet. The issue remains that only buys time and does nothing for the change to the new path.)

  15. 165
    Ray Ladbury says:

    mdc, are you being intentionally obtose? My point is that even if climate were not at issue, our economy would be headed for massive and rapid change. The fact that climate is a critical concern makes the change all the more imperative and also restricts the solutions available to us to those which do not increase CO2 emissions. This is not optional. This is not a matter of “can we afford it”. To say that we cannot afford a sustainable civilization is to say that we cannot, in the long run, afford civilization. Got it now?

  16. 166
    Ray Ladbury says:

    BJ Chippindale,
    You are not going to see cheap access to space in your lifetime. You are not going to see a fleet of mirrors reflecting sunlight away from Earth in your lifetime. The largest similar system currently on the books is the sunshade for the James Webb Space Telescope. It is about the size of a tennis court–and its deployment is a bitch. Once there, it has to deal with a harsh radiation environment and maintain its position as the solar wind tries to move it. This is a fantasy.

  17. 167
    Hank Roberts says:

    This is what Nathan Myhrvold does: announce vaporware to paralyze competition.

    “… The purpose of announcing early like this is to freeze the market …. In this respect it is JUST like the original Windows announcement. This time we have a lot better development team, so the time between announce and ship will be a lot smaller. Nevertheless we need to get our message out there.”

    Today’s version:

    Don’t change anything. Wait until what we promise to sell gets developed.
    Our climate product will be just as good as the first version of Windows was.

  18. 168
    Mark says:

    ““We will force you to be green.”


    It worked for the US:

    “We will force you to give us liberty.”

    Or did the founding fathers ask the British government for consensus on the idea of home-rule in the American colony?

  19. 169
    Mark says:

    “There is a major political difference between a tax rise and a price rise.”

    Not if it is an essential.

    Electric power.

    And petrol, unless you only work locally (and this is highly unlikely: you don’t have a job for life any more, and so you’re likely to be sacked from work at least once. Try limiting yourself to walking or cycling distance from home for working).

    There’s no difference.

    Just like tax, you can’t not pay it.

    “You can eat less”

    Well you can earn less too. And that reduces the tax you pay.

  20. 170
    Mark says:

    “What I’m not convinced of is that avoiding these additional harms of geo-engineering are worth $1tn/year.”

    OK, can you please let me know if that is supposed to be 1 trillion dollars?

    Now, can you explain what that means?

    Will money disappear if we don’t do geoengineering???

    “As far as I am concerned this is a quantitative problem. Your claimed speed advantages for CO2 reductions (are you serious, by the way?) may be worth $1tn/year, or they may not, but it doesn’t seem at all obvious that they are.”

    Uh, we can cut back CO2 at any time we wish.

    Just stop burning so much of it.

    INSTANT reduction in CO2 output.

    And why the obsession with 1tn a year?

    You really are going to have to explain why this money is what has to be made or spent or given to geoengineering or whatever is coming from.

  21. 171
    Mark says:

    “We put a mirror in space in the 1960’s Mark. It wasn’t that hard. Echo 1a was launched in August 1960. 75 Kg.”

    Wow. To affect the solar radiation intercepted at earth, this must be spread pretty darn thin, BJ.

    Though I have to ask: after being beaten that thin, did it actually reflect any light at all? Or did it get evaporated by the sunlight falling on it..?

  22. 172
    Jim Eager says:

    Re mdc @142: “ultimately millions in the third world are going to die due to lost development that is instead used to pay for CO2 reduction”

    A statement of belief that assumes 1) that same expenditure will otherwise be made on so-called “third world” development, and 2) that none of the expenditure on CO2 reduction will be made in the “third world.”

  23. 173
    mdc says:

    Ray Ladbury @ 165: I don’t think you understand the economics of the situation. ‘Peak oil’ would, climate change considerations aside, result in a rise in the price of oil such that either present uses became unviable and/or alternatives became cheaper. This would be a ‘natural’ transition over a fairly long period of time.

    The $1.2tn Stern report CO2 reduction proposals are costs additional to this, covering two major cost errors: the first is the opportunity cost of switching away from oil before oil ceases to be economically viable, and the second is the opportunity cost of shifting non-oil CO2-generating energy sources to less cost effective sources. The latter alone presently makes up the majority of CO2 producing energy consumption.

    PS. As hilarious as it is reading you repeatedly insulting my intelligence in badly spelt English, it’s not a very decent way to behave, now is it?

    Jim Eager @ 172: It’s nothing to do with “expenditure”. There will be less wealth available to be consumed than otherwise. When you’re considering sums in the trillions, the effects cannot be localised. The first world will experience ill-effects as well, but a reduction in growth rate, or even negative growth rate, for us by and large just means less luxury. In the fast-growing third world economies like India and China, it is the difference between life and death for many.

  24. 174
    mdc says:

    Mark @ 170: [sorry for the double post, but I didn’t see this before]

    Dollar notes won’t disappear if we choose CO2 reduction, but wealth will disappear, yes. Wealth is not a conserved quantity: if we adopt processes that require more input to get a certain amount of output, there will be less output. This is even worse than it sounds, because growth tends to be exponential. The equivalent of losing $1tn/year in 50 or 100 years’ time – when we stand to benefit from it all – is absolutely vast. Assuming a modest real terms interest rate of just 2%, the lost value of $1tn/year in 100 years time is more than $300tn – or total 5x current world GDP; at 4%, this becomes a stupendous $1.3 quadrillion dollars, which is probably more than the sum total of mankind’s production up until now.

    So I really think that we should take this wealth loss seriously. On a par with how seriously we take the climate change in the first place, which shouldn’t be surprising, since Stern calculated his $1.2/tn year spending plan on the basis of how much he thought the economic damage of the climate change would be worth. If we do geo-engineering then wealth will, of course, still be lost, but the claim is that very significantly less will be.

    As to which has a speed advantage: it is of course possible, in a philosophical sense, for us even to suddenly end all CO2 emissions. But that will not actually happen, and the evidence of the various intergovernmental attempts to agree to reduce CO2 indicates this is a long drawn out process. Not because countries are against the principle of stopping climate change, but because they (probably rightfully) weigh the value of the wealth loss highly in their calaculations: developing, aspirant third world countries especially, but also countries that perceive themselves as having a strategic position to maintain, such as the US or Russia. In this regard, I think a cheap solution is very much more likely to be implemented quickly, because it side-steps a lot of these problems.

  25. 175
    Jim Eager says:

    mdc wrote @173: “There will be less wealth available to be consumed than otherwise.”

    Hogwash. Wealth will be invested in production and installation of solar-voltaic, solar-termal and wind turbine hardware, among other things, and that production will generate more wealth. And were do you think that hardware will be manufactured? China is already the world’s largest producer of solar voltaic panels, and is on-track to achieve the largest installed base of wind generation. That hardly sounds like a death sentence to any rational mind.

  26. 176
  27. 177
    Ray Ladbury says:

    mdc, Actually, suggesting that you are being deliberately obtuse is giving your intelligence the benefit of the doubt, as the alternative is to conclude that you simply aren’t bright enough to comprehend what you read.

    Let me spell it out more simply.

    Sustainalbe=able to maintain itself into the indefinite future.

    Oil=finite resource= not sustainable

    Coal, likewise.

    Environmental collapse as global population climbs to 9 billion=really, really bad

    So, if you are saying that we cannot afford to develop a sustainable economy in the 30 or 40 years before we cause environmental collapse, then you are saying we cannot afford civilization. I don’t agree. Now is that simple enough, or should I try it in monosyllables?

  28. 178
    Patrick 027 says:

    mdc – Stern $ 1.2 trillion / year ?

    Are you sure that wasn’t $1.2 trillion dollars total over several decades?

    Because I thought the Stern report concluded that a substantial mitigation scenario would ultimately delay economic growth by maybe a couple years out of 100, or something like that. So you’d have to wait until 2099 for the global GDP (would that just be GP, since there is not any interplanetary trade as of yet?) to rise to what it would instead have achieved in 2096 or 2098. Which – I’m not sure, is not taking into account the savings from avoided climate change, which might actually put GDP in 2099 at a value that it instead wouldn’t have achieved until maybe 2120 (?) or 2199 or 2555 or 3200 or 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 or 500,000,000 (?), depending on how things go.

    Re 161,163 Alexander Harvey (I think you were actually responding to me, not Jim – its okay) – yes, the politics is different, and I’m just poking fun at that. Which is that it is funny to me that some conservatives will defend the poor against emissions taxes but would just assume do nothing to help the poor if prices rose for any other reason, apparently.

    Re space mirrors – actually, the shade can be anything with opacity and could just be a bunch of space debris (although that could pose problems as I remarked earlier); it only need be a mirror or organized set of mirrors if it is to serve some additional purpose (asteroid defense, perhaps?).

    Re L. David Cooke – 164 – nice comment. But I think the $1 trillion/year is a bit high. For the US energy use in particular, with (prices vary and subject to overall decline), let’s just say $3/peak W including balance of system for solar power (could include ‘CAES’, thermal storage, chemical storage, also HVDC), replacing the primary energy consumption (~ 3 TW) with electrical equivalent (~ 1 TW) (Yes, technological issues there, I know…), with module fleet average solar insolation of ~ 200 W/m2 (so it would be $15/average W not counting fill factor related losses and slow degradation – will get to that), the price tag comes to $15 trillion. WOW! But wait… how long will these things last? Some of the most expensive parts might last typically 50, 60, … 100 years. With the degradation over 100 years – supposing 0.5 % annual intrinsic loss + 0.5 % storm/fire/etc module area losses, we’d get around 60-years worth of installed power over 90 to 100 maximum years of service…

  29. 179


    I really should have added a clarification: I doubt that it could be achieved without a revolutionary government.

    “We will force you to be green.”

    If we don’t switch away from fossil fuel use on a massive scale voluntarily and under a democratic system, we will do so under the lash–or human civilization will fall. There are no other alternatives. I prefer the first.

  30. 180

    #173 mdc

    First, what is your real name?

    Second, what is wealth in your opinion?

    Third, are you under the impression that dollars = value, or are a realistic representation of productivity? Or that dollars are merely a medium of exchange that is intended to represent value. Or…?

    What is value? is it the cost of a product, or the worth?

    There are so many arbitrary realities here is is difficult to have a proper conversation. Even the standard definitions do not accurately represent the reality due to the multitude of perspective biases in the equation of discussion.

    From what I gather from the discussion, people are considering the value of SO2 injections into the atmosphere without understanding the ramifications and costs. Everything is estimated based on so & so, or such & such.

    There are a lot of people that think, including my uncle George Reisman, that ‘if’ global warming is a problem, then humans will figure out some new technology that will fix it.

    The naiveté of the assumption is dangerous however. It indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the scope of the problem and mankind’s capacity to reasonably, rationally, and economically deal with the problem.

    For the sake of a reference point, do you believe global warming is human caused? And, if so, what is your thinking on mitigation and adaptation, as well as economic viability in the context of proposed solutions?

    Also, how bad do you think the problem of global warming is, from an economic perspective as in what should we commit to the problem?

  31. 181
    Silk says:

    mdc – You misunderstand Stern

    “Since if it’s anything less than $1tn/year, geo-engineering is still beating the Stern report’s proposals for CO2 reduction.”

    But we are going to spend something like $30 tn on the energy system in the next 30 years anyway, JUST TO STAND STILL. The /incremental/ cost is about $1 tn over that period. So somewhat less than $100bn per annum.

    “ultimately millions in the third world are going to die due to lost development that is instead used to pay for CO2 reduction”

    This is just bollocks. The idea that we were going to spend the money on the poor but we spent it on climate instead is crap. We are going to spend THE VAST MAJORITY of that cash investing in coal-fired power stations, coal mines, oil wells, refineries, petrol stations, cars etc. etc. etc. We aren’t giving it to Africa.

    Not to mention the environmental (not climate) costs of soil, water and (particularly) air quality. Any ideas how much air pollution from coal costs the average Chinese peasant a year?

    We are INVESTING literally trillions in dead-end technology. And the oil is running out.

    Do you want to invest, let’s say, a conservative $25 trillion in fossil technology to 2030, just to stand still?

    Or a (very generous) $30 trillion on clean tech (including nuclear, I confess) that will generate the same amount of energy, and cause a fraction of the environmental damage AND give us sustainable energy until the sun dies AND not wreck the climate?

    Or spend $0 (but end up living in the stone age)?

    The choice is yours. Well, ours, actually.

  32. 182
    Darren says:

    Hey Gavin. Did you guys see this? Looks like you’re ahead in the poll…

  33. 183
    Patrick 027 says:

    Not including interest rates (for lo-ans) or dividends (equity), etc.:
    in inflation-adjusted (constant real) money:

    cents/kWh for energy investments with average power = 0.2 * capacity, for equivalent years of service (actual number of years will have to be a bit longer to make up for degradation, and some modules will have to have a longer service lift to make up for losses in other modules):

    (using 8.766 kWh/(W-year), which is an average with a leap year every 4 years)

    ____equivalent years: ___ 10 | ___ 15 | ___ 20 | ___ 30 | ___ 40 | ___ 50 | ___ 60
    $/peak W|$/average W|
    ___ 4.0 | ____ 20.0 | 22.815 | 15.210 | 11.408 |_ 7.605 |_ 5.704 |_ 4.563 |_ 3.803
    ___ 3.0 | ____ 15.0 | 17.112 | 11.408 |_ 8.556 |_ 5.704 |_ 4.278 |_ 3.422 |_ 2.852
    ___ 2.0 | ____ 10.0 | 11.408 |_ 7.605 |_ 5.704 |_ 3.803 |_ 2.852 |_ 2.282 |_ 1.901
    ___ 1.5 | _____ 7.5 |_ 8.556 |_ 5.704 |_ 4.278 |_ 2.852 |_ 2.139 |_ 1.711 |_ 1.426
    ___ 1.0 | _____ 5.0 |_ 5.704 |_ 3.803 |_ 2.852 |_ 1.901 |_ 1.426 |_ 1.141 |_ 0.951


    US energy expenditures now about $1 trillion/year.

  34. 184
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 178

    Hey Patrick,

    I would suggest that installed costs of Solar Systems will likely be nearer to $5/watt by next Spring. If the newer manufacturing systems (printed and organic) come on line they could drop to $2/watt by 2011.

    The main difference in cost will be the efficiency of conversion. 18% efficient poly-crystalline can be obtained for about $3/watt today, only the current panels are too small in size, if they were issued in 1m^2 panels they would come closer to a 60-80 watt output and they would teeter on the edge of being useful at that point. 28% efficient Mono-crystalline are running about $6-7/watt and are dropping slowly as more manufacturing is coming on line, “the big problem had been the silicon ingot availability and the Fab time availability…”

    The point is with the continued development in technical design mono crystalline may get to 35-40% efficient as they continue to expand the acceptance spectrum. Though the cost will be a minimum of a decade before they are in the realm of “affordable”?

    The truth is likely that even the top of the line products will have a life expectancy of 20 years and that is only if you include a thermal extraction coil to the underside of the panel to reduce thermal degradation (Which also increases optical conversion efficiency BTW.) As to the printed or organic versions they likely will have a life expectancy of 5-7 years…

    I will suggest that using storage systems are likely not valid considerations and an unnecessary expense. The average roof top is insufficient to meet peak demand and remain a of hours resource. Hence, grid interfaced solar peaking coupled with a Nuclear base load design is likely the best path forward. With the use of fluidized bed coal gasification furnaces or CNG for inclement condition peaking resources. As fuel cells and other alternatives begin to come on line then we can attempt to wean ourselves off stationary combustion derived resources…

    Dave Cooke

  35. 185
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Okay, here it is, one of the solutions (we should not be looking for the “silver bullet,” but at 1000 ways to mitigate GW) —

    Biochar — a mobile pyrolyzer for about $10,000 is in development by Princeton scientists. It would not only help toward drawing carbon from the atmosphere, but would pay for itself in a year, and (presumably) go on to save such money each year, while increasing crop productivity by 20%. This is like having your cake and eating it too.


    Skip these freakonomics guys, they’re barking way up the wrong tree.

  36. 186
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 185

    Hey Lynn,

    Why lose the available hydrocarbon resource in biomass by directly going to charcoal? You are aware that the low temperatures you would need to prevent your “Anoxious Furnace” from reducing your biomass to ash would likely make it a high emitter of carbon monoxide…?

    The compost emerging from a biomass digester would likely be the better material for plants hence, increasing carbon sequesteration while providing future fuel.

    Dave Cooke

  37. 187
    Hank Roberts says:

    Did you watch the video, David? Less than 5 minutes.
    It’s only an ’emitter’ if it’s the old open container method.
    Did those pictures and what they’re describing seem like what you imagine?

  38. 188
    Patrick 027 says:

    So consider the case where there is an energy use of 1 TW electric equivalent, with an original source costing $ 1 trillion per year per TW, that is to be replaced by clean energy with a price of $15 per average installed W with an annual power decay of 1 %.

    Money spent on the clean energy investment: spend $10 billion, increase annual spending by $10 billion each year through year 8, then increase spending twice as fast from year 9 (total $ 80 billion in the ninth year) to year 24 (total $ 0.4 trillion in the 24th year), then hold steady at $ 0.4 trillion annual investment in clean energy.

    Assume a 2 year energy payback time for clean energy, so that the total installed average W each year increases the total energy use that year by twice that power (so that in year 24, $ 0.4 trillion is spent to add 26.7 average GW of clean power, and total energy use that year is 1.0533 TW).

    The total ‘dirty energy’ consumption peaks in the first year at 1.00067 TW, and falls below 1 TW in year 4. In year 64 it goes to ZERO. Cummulative avoided emissions (relative to constant 1 TW ‘dirty energy’ use) go positive in year 5, and reaches 27.47 years of avoided emissions in year 64, increasing by 1 year per year after that as emissions are zero at that point. (Thus, the total emissions, in years of 1 TW ‘dirty energy’, is capped at 64 – 27.47 ~= 36.53 years.)

    Total annual spending on energy peaks in year 22 at 18 % above the trillion dollar per year baseline – thus an increase in annual spending of $ 180 billion. Spending goes back to baseline value between year 31 and year 32, so that the cummulative above-baseline spending peaks at $ 3.417 trillion in year 31.

    Cummulative above-baseline spending goes to zero after year 49. In year 50, annual energy spending has fallen to $ 0.635 trillion – an annual savings of $ 0.365 trillion. In year 64, the annual savings reaches $ 0.6 trillion, with the only spending on clean energy, and the cummulative savings reaches $ 7.111 trillion. Note that constant spending after that point results in an increasing energy supply, perhaps for net CO2 removal from the air and other things. (Total energy supply, minus energy input to the energy supply, is 1.37 TW in year 90.)

    In reality, some portion of the energy supply now goes to providing energy (more than the electricity used by power stations), so total energy supply to non-energy supply sectors actually increases before year 64 in this scenario.

    But this doesn’t include taxes. In fairness, it could be argued that property taxes on the energy conversion devices should be the same as the fuel taxes for fuel (but the property tax on the land should in fairness be determined by land value apart from the installations on it).

    It also doesn’t include that worldwide, energy use will increase even with efficiency improvements. But that might not change the proportions much, because presumably the present day cost of energy reflects the investments being made to support growth. I haven’t gone through this scenario yet though. On the other hand, fossil fuel prices will rise even without climate policy, so savings could be greater.

    Solar power prices are on the way down. Even with material limitations on CdTe ( about $1/peak W, or $5 / average W using the same conditions as above, though that doesn’t include balance of system), there is CIGS, amorphous Si, thin c-Si with light trapping, and potential for other photovoltaic materials, for example, zinc phosphide and CZTS (or is it CTZS … it’s a sulfide of Cu, Sn (tin), and Zn). I might have trouble finding it now, but I also came across a website which suggested that commercially-available PV efficiencies might eventually reach 40 % (it’s generally under 10 % to 15 % now), and CPV efficiencies might reach 60 %. Efficiency improvements have the potential to limit necessary land use. (In desert installations, because solar panels will be spaced to reduce shadowing of each other, older less efficient panels could also be laid flat when newer more efficient panels are installed (if the cost decrease allows it), and or newer panels might be made bigger so as to cast shadows on the older panels in winter (if the series within panels go side-to-side, this would reduce the consequences of shadowing which will generally go up and down the panels over the day and year) – although by saving land, the total power will experience a greater seasonal range and a more concentrated dose at noon, but by the time this might be done, storage could handle it, I would think. Storage installations (CAES, pumped water (could be underground), on-site thermal for solar thermal technology, hydrogen/other chemical) can lag behind renewable energy installations since the grid can act as storage with fuel, hydroelectric (which will be more available in rainy weather and less available in droughts, which presumably would tend to be associated with higher solar power supplies), and geothermal and biofuel power being responsive to changes in wind and solar (and waves). Shifting the timing of desalination and water pumping, and energy inputs to CO2 sequestration and maybe even aluminum production, etc, could also help. Also, HVDC (which is “undergroundable” as I have read in a follow-up to the famous “Solar Grand Plan” article) will help reduce storage needs, among other things. Short-term fluctuations in solar power might be compensated for by signalling smart appliances to shift timing of energy use according to local cloud conditions (ie clouds moving in ten minutes, run refrigerator now to store up cold – and so on for HVAC and water heating (a lot of room for efficiency improvement and/or improved fuel usage strategy in those two – ie electric heat pumps run on fuel cells that produce waste heat, or just use waste heat from fuel cells run on natural gas, to be replaced with biofuel or solar hydrogen…?). Good use of solar energy for direct heat and light should help reduce winter energy needs except at the highest populated latitudes. As long as I’m on the subject, solar power and supporting industries have about as good (or was it better?) worker safety records as nuclear power, not including radiological risks. Of a few Si solar cell technologies, CdTe, and coal, solar power lifecycles release less Cd into the environment than coal power, with CdTe emitting the least – in large part because CdTe has the shortest energy payback time and some portion of that energy input is now coal (but that will change) – although this is for ‘normal operations’. Back to land-use, I doubt it need get as high as is stated in the original “Solar Grand Plan” in part because they conservatively assume no further increases in solar panel efficiency beyond some year (2020?) and also because they do not factor in the increases in energy efficiency – in fact they have a substantial increase in per capita energy use by year 2100, whereas total primary energy consumption per capita in the U.S. has been nearly steady over the last three decades. And future cost declines will allow more compact arrays to save on land at the expense of average panel insolation. (Not to ignore rooftop devices, which may be hybrid (making use of waste heat), and/or double as skylights (luminescent concentrator technology).) PS east-west aligned rows of either flat-panel or concentrating devices will cast the longest shadows in winter, when plants in between them would likely be dormant at sufficiently high latitudes – summertime could be used to grow crops among the solar devices, and in semi-arid regions, solar panels could effectively act to concentrate water onto the vegetated regions between them or adjacent to an array. Solar panel albedo effects will tend to be of the same order of magnitude as the electrical energy supply, which will be quite small globally – in some cases solar power plants might increase the albedo (would that tend to reduce local boundary-layer cloud cover?). (Note that the effective albedo includes the efficiency of conversion to electricity, since that does not go into heating onsite, and off site has the same climatological consequences as any other energy use.) Greatest albedo reductions would occur in winter. Mirror concentrators would tend to reflect a fraction of diffuse radiation back up – actually, a portion of that would be reflected back down again, especially in cloudy conditions, so flat panel devices (including luminescent concentors) might produce greater power in cloudy weather when surrounded by CSP/CPV and/or snow.

  39. 189
    Patrick 027 says:

    And I will try to get back to you with references, though it may take awhile.

  40. 190
    Patrick 027 says:

    “But this doesn’t include taxes.”

    Well, it would presumably include some of the taxes in the energy supply lifecycle – I assume when someone buys a solar panel now for $x, some of that is to income taxes, etc, up the supply chain.

  41. 191
    Mark says:

    #173: “There will be less wealth available to be consumed than otherwise.”

    I earn more in a month than my dad did at my age in a year.

    Is this more wealth?

    I don’t think so because I’m not able to buy a house every two years (25 year mort gage paid off in 1 month to 1 year).

    And when food becomes scarce because londoners have to move into the farmlands uphill because the city is flooded, what do you think will happen to my wealth? It will go on food rather than the luxuries and my wealth will reduce even if my money increases.

  42. 192
    CM says:

    mdc, Patrick 027,

    mdc said:

    Assuming a modest real terms interest rate of just 2%, the
    lost value of $1tn/year in 100 years time is more than $300tn – or
    total 5x current world GDP

    It’s a comfort we’ll still have the ~16,000tn (or total 320x current world GDP) from the other ~$49tn/year, then.

    Of course, if science is anywhere near right, those trillions will be well spent.

    mdc, does it keep you awake at night calculating the cumulative opportunity cost in 20-30 years of the health insurance you pay today? Do you compare that figure with your current salary? Do you still want health insurance? Does the phrase “apples and oranges” mean anything to you?

    Actually, Stern is not talking about a fixed $1tn/year but a ballpark cost of 2% of GDP per annum (after rounding up for bad policy and nasty surprises). It starts at about $1tn today and grows with the marginal cost of reductions. The calculated cost increase seems to roughly keep pace with a world economy growing at 2% a year.

    As Stern points out, in this scenario, by 2050, the world economy would lag business-as-usual growth by six months.

    I’m referring to Stern’s recent book “Blueprint for a Safer Planet”, p. 54, not the Stern report.

    You should read it. In particular the chapter about discounting. Might make you think twice about applying a simple cost analysis to a 100-year period in which the natural world and the world economy will change beyond experience, in all likelihood leaving our grandchildren to pay an exorbitant premium for ecosystem services we today still take for granted.

  43. 193
    P_adic says:

    > # 182 Darren says:
    > 21 October 2009 at 5:49 PM
    > Hey Gavin. Did you guys see this? Looks like you’re ahead in the poll…

    “Hottest men” ? No doubt we are already seeing here some positive feedback due the AGW.

  44. 194
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 187

    Hey Hank,

    No I hadn’t; however, the principle is common, it was used by my mothers family in Upstate NY for years as the means to create Charcoal.

    Basically you would dig a pit, start a fire and then begin to toss in logs. Once all surfaces were engaged you would in essence “bank” the fire by covering it with dirt. The fire would continue to smolder based on the size of the hole and the amount of wood you put in the pit which would determine the amount of time the wood was to remain smoldering. Just like pottery making, it was usually two days with someone tending through out the night.

    This was no difference from an experiment we ran in junior high chemistry with wooden tongue depressor anoxic reduction. We would splinter up a few tongue depressors and place them in a test tube, corking the container and running a tube from the test tube to a bottle in a water bath. From there we ran to a second bottle in an dryice bath. After turning on the Bunsen burner and running the process several times we got measurable amounts of alcohol and water…. The end gas that emerged from the dry ice bath was tested and found to contain high amounts of CO by bubbling the gas through lime water.

    The point is returning Biochar to the ground is a valid solution; however, alone it is inefficient. If you were to process and extract the methanol produced as well it might be a reasonable system, except for the energy required to generate the heat necessary, if that heat is not used elsewhere, as well.

    On the other hand a two stage biomass processing system which extracts the sugars and alcohols first and then allows for the balance of the nutrients and carbon to be return to the soil is much more effective/efficient, though slower, it provides both an alternative energy source, allowing the system to approach being energy neutral, as well as a carbon neutral sequestration of carbon…

    IMHO biomass digestion is much more cost effective and allows for the creation of a profit making industry rather then a waste disposal/carbon sequestration cost. Shucks, if you could keep heavy metals and salt out of human septic treatment systems they could provide carbon sequestration opportunities as well… (I do not have a link; but, the UN WHO have now implemented biomass digesters in Africa promoting conversion to gas stoves as a means of reducing deforestation and increasing the health in the homes, (No more choking wood smoke!).

    In short, I would suggest that low tech is the best step forward, the more cost effective the solution the higher chance of adoption and the greater reduction in mineral carbon demand. (Oh BTW, yes, you get CO2 and HSO from bio-digesters and will require both an iron wool and lime water wash of the methane produced… Sorry to say you cannot get away with not having these issues when dealing with organics…)

    Dave Cooke

  45. 195
    Ray Ladbury says:

    One of the problems I have with neocon economics is that it utterly ignores the role if technological innovation in fostering economic growth. Developing a sustainable economy will require a significant investment in technology, and that will actually foster growth.

    Economic Reality–it’s not just about taxes!

  46. 196
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 188

    Hey Patrick,

    Your annual potential conversion decay should be more on the order of 4%/year out to about year 5 and then about 2%/year out to year 20 for one. The systemic decay will require the expenditure of $1t every 20 years or roughly $50t in 2005 dollars over the 100 year period you are proposing. Given the value of the USD is 1/2 every 20 years that would suggest an expense at 80 of $16t and $32t at 100 years. Stepped up that would be $1t, $2t, $4t, $8t, and finally $16t in year 80 resulting in simple panel costs of $31t over the 100 year time frame, with an additional $32t in the last year for the next 20 year period. (Yes, increases in efficiency may occur; however, they would not necessarily be used to reduce solar panel costs; but, to change the base load systems as that would be where the greater cost burden would be.)

    You also may want to reconsider your storage solutions even if you were to attempt a sodium or salt solution, the benefit would only be local and limited to maximum value of around 200 Deg. F,(no concentrators in a PV system), so unless you have a local use for a 200 Deg. working fluid, (Like a Sterling Engine driving a alternator.), your storage system is an expense that has no economic added value even if it were to last the typical 5 year life expectancy…, sorry.

    As to my comment of the extraction of heat through a working fluid, that was not in regard to the SW US DoE “Sun Tower”; but, a simple fact that as you reduce the thermal content in a PV cell the efficiency of conversion increases.

    Hence, by placing your cells on a aluminum or copper plate with copper tubing running across the back and insulated you could in essence replace south facing roofing with these 24″ wide panels and they would be implemented to replace the use of plywood and asphalt roofing materials saving the both wood and tar/asphalt for other uses. Building costs would rise about $10K for the average home and yet it would use about 1/4-1/2 the purchased energy of a normal home… The extracted heat energy could either go to a water heater or to a Sterling Engine Peaking system which returns the home demand to the Grid primarily only for night time heating, cooling and entertainment systems while things such as lighting, if converted to LED, will be minuscule at best and may be run on batteries if desired.

    Dave Cooke

  47. 197

    [Take 3:]

    Dave, if you had watched the video, you’d know that the process–in “late prototype stage” as of filming–involves reclaiming the hydro-carbon content as you advocate. (It’s in the form of “bio-oil.”)

    They’re talking about a $10,000 unit with a one-year payback period. That’s good deal on the economic scale of developed-world farms.

    [If this doesn’t work, I’ll stop torturing the moderators!]

  48. 198
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 197

    Hey Ken,

    Actually, I had looked it over. Notice the costs involved in the video are only the cost of the unit; now add in the costs of powering the unit… Though a bio-digester extracts about 10% of the potential energy in the material the total return on energy assets approach 80%.

    Found a link that highlights the positives and negatives of biomass bio-digester conversion:

    Sure the pyrolizer is not septic; however, it is not micro-organism free and where the bio-digester requires a water resource it does not require a heat or fuel resource. As to the bio oil produced in the pyrolizer, generally this is mainly ethanol mixed with the combustible resins generated in the anoxic reduction of the organic material. The sulfides and CO are still there, plus you have the additional CO2 generated to raise the organic material to nearly 455 Deg. F min. (Believe me a solar system cannot reach that point without a sizable (read expensive) installation. If solar were and option then this would be an option as well:

    I am not trying to be hard headed or difficult or even stifling of great ideas; however, costs remain a major component of this consideration. Just as they currently do at Sewage Treatment Centers, if you allow the affluent to dry out in direct sunlight prior to use you get a bacteria and mold free high carbon mixture you can either mix in soil or bury for say growing tubers in and get the benefit of both sequestering carbon, enriching the soil and getting fuel…, at 1/10th the cost of the great idea presented in the video…

    Which do you think would be easier to deploy and has a greater likelihood of adoption? Especially when you consider the cost of a 500 liter polyethylene tank, a solar powered bubbler/air pump, a few hundred liters of water and a couple of tons of waste can provide… (around $1500) -vs- a patented solar pryolizer (est. $10K, plus fuel), even if it were donated by a philanthropic group… (The only materials required to make the output of a bio-digester a commercial venture is a several kg of steel wool once a month and lime water, from reduced lime stone, (if you wanted to remove the CO2).)

    BTW there are several thousand truck loads of free plastic sitting in the middle of the N. Pacific if anyone would like a cheap resource for making bio-digester tanks….

    Dave Cooke

  49. 199
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 197

    Hey All,

    Ooops broken link, the solar water purifier is at: (I hate auto completion sometimes…, especially when I forget to include a space between the link and the parenthesis.)

    Dave Cooke

  50. 200
    J.D. Gibbard says:

    Coming in a bit late but in reply to #10 BJ_Chippindale I have often wondered about the dangers of capturing energy in space and sending it to Earth as the majority of energy eventually gets converted to heat energy. Should we be taking sunlight that doesn’t hit the Earth and directing at the Earth? I’m thinking of the magnifying glass and the ant analogy. Perhaps a space-based energy source could be climate-benign if it displaced enough GHG-based energy but I doubt it because because so much carbon would have to emitted in the construction of it and then that carbon would continue to insulate the planet for centuries. I’d be interested to see an analysis done.