[Marxism] Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 29 09:07:59 MDT 2012


Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations

In energy matters, what goes around, comes around—but perhaps 
should go away

Vaclav Smil

2011-05SmilF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageTo follow global energy 
affairs is to have a never-ending encounter with new infatuations. 
Fifty years ago media ignored crude oil (a barrel went for little 
more than a dollar). Instead the western utilities were 
preoccupied with the annual double-digit growth of electricity 
demand that was to last indefinitely, and many of them decided 
that only large-scale development of nuclear fission, to be 
eventually transformed into a widespread adoption of fast breeder 
reactors, could secure electricity’s future. Two decades later, in 
the midst of the second energy “crisis” (1979–1981, precipitated 
by Khomeini’s takeover of Iran), rising crude oil prices became 
the world’s prime existential concern, growth of electricity 
demand had slumped to low single digits, France was the only 
nation that was seriously pursuing a nuclear future, and small 
cars were in vogue.

After world crude oil prices collapsed in 1985 (temporarily below 
$5 per barrel), American SUVs began their rapid diffusion that 
culminated in using the Hummer H1, a civilian version of a U.S. 
military assault vehicle weighing nearly 3.5 tonnes, for trips to 
grocery stores—and the multinational oil companies were the worst 
performing class of stocks of the 1990s. The first decade of the 
21st century changed all that, with constant fears of an imminent 
peak of global oil extraction (in some versions amounting to 
nothing less than lights out for western civilization), 
catastrophic consequences of fossil fuel-induced global warming 
and a grand unraveling of the post-WW II world order.

All of this has prompted incessant calls for the world to innovate 
its way into a brighter energy future, a quest that has engendered 
serial infatuations with new, supposedly perfect solutions: 
Driving was to be transformed first by biofuels, then by fuel 
cells and hydrogen, then by hybrid cars, and now it is the 
electrics (Volt, Tesla, Nissan) and their promoters (Shai Agassi, 
Elon Musk, Carlos Ghosn) that command media attention; electricity 
generation was to be decarbonized either by a nuclear renaissance 
or by ubiquitous wind turbines (even Boone Pickens, a veteran 
Texas oilman, succumbed to that call of the wind), while others 
foresaw a comfortable future for fossil fuels once their visions 
of mass carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) were put in 
practice. And if everything fails, then 
geoengineering—manipulating the Earth’s climate with shades in 
space, mist-spewing ships or high-altitude flights disgorging 
sulfur compounds—will save us by cooling the warming planet.

This all brings to mind Lemuel Gulliver’s visit to the grand 
academy of Lagado: No fewer than 500 projects were going on there 
at once, always with anticipation of an imminent success, much as 
the inventor who “has been eight years upon a project for 
extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers” believed that “in eight 
years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens 
with sunshine, at a reasonable rate”—but also always with 
complaints about stock being low and entreaties to “give … 
something as an encouragement to ingenuity.” Admittedly, ideas for 
new energy salvations do not currently top 500, but their spatial 
extent puts Lagado’s inventors to shame: Passionately advocated 
solutions range from extracting work from that meager 20-Kelvin 
difference between the surface and deep waters in tropical seas 
(OTEC: ocean thermal energy conversion) to Moon-based solar 
photovoltaics with electricity beamed to the Earth by microwaves 
and received by giant antennas.

And continuous hopes for success (at a low price) in eight more 
years are as fervent now as they were in the fictional 18th 
century Lagado. There has been an endless procession of such 
claims on behalf of inexpensive, market-conquering solutions, be 
they fuel cells or cellulosic ethanol, fast breeder reactors or 
tethered wind turbines. And energy research can never get enough 
money to satisfy its promoters: In 2010 the U.S. President’s 
council of advisors recommended raising the total for U.S. energy 
research to $16 billion a year; that is actually too little 
considering the magnitude of the challenge—but too much when 
taking into account the astonishing unwillingness to adopt many 
readily available and highly effective existing fixes in the first 


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