TCS Daily

The Technology of Medieval Peasantry to the Rescue?

By Tim Worstall - May 2, 2005 12:00 AM

One of the delights about the way my life is currently working out (soon to be followed by the inevitable disaster, I am sure,) is that there is a neat connection between what I actually do for a living and where my intellectual interests lie. In the day job I deal with weird and wonderful metals and their compounds, something which has meant my keeping a close eye on developments in fuel cell technology and my intellect, such as it is, delights in deriding those who see the world as other than it is. For example, Georges Monbiot in the Guardian is insistent that global warming can only be tackled by a reduction in overall power usage:

        In other words, there is no sustainable way of meeting current projections 
        for energy demand. The only strategy in any way compatible with     
        environmentalism is one led by a vast reduction in total use.

He gets to this by insisting that:

        Onshore wind turbines are currently the cheapest means of producing 
        new power without fossil fuels, but at the moment they account for just 
        0.32% of our electricity. Faced with the global emergency of climate 
        change, it would be criminally irresponsible not to build more

Consider, for example, the claims for hydrogen fuel cells. Their proponents 
        believe that this country's vehicles could all one day be run on hydrogen 
        produced by electricity from wind power. I am not sure if they have any 
        idea what this involves.

He quite rightly goes on to point out that if transport were to be fueled by hydrogen from wind power then the entirety of the British Isles would have to be turned over to 100 ft windmills.

There area number of problems with this view, first being that no sane individual thinks that wind power is anything other than a politically convenient dodge, and certainly there is no one within the fuel cell industry who thinks that it will provide much more than a drop in the bucket of hydrogen needed.

Start with the idea that (although there are other alternatives, let's stick to this one) we do indeed need to produce electricity so as to electrolyze water to produce hydrogen for fuel cells. This means that we are not discussing a primary power source, just a method of storage and delivery of energy when and where we actually want it. Let us also assume that we do not want to do it from fossil fuels (despite an interesting approach into natural gas reformation, CO2 sequestration and subsequent use of the hydrogen, something that could work very well with methane hydrates as well). Is Monbiot actually correct in stating that wind power is the cheapest method possible without use of fossil fuels?

Quite by chance there was a report out on the same day that appears to indicate that he is not correct.

        Wind farms will require £12 billion in public subsidies, almost three times as 
        much as nuclear power plants will cost, according to a new report.

        A study from Oxford Economic Research Associates said nuclear power 
        could provide the same amount of carbon-free electricity for £4.4billion.

I will admit to being amused by the reaction of the Labor Party spokesman, when confronted with this inconvenient piece of accountancy:

        A Labour spokesman said: "We do not believe the current economics 
        make nuclear power worthwhile. There are no plans for future nuclear 
        build. The focus is on renewables."

You can get a copy of the report by registering here and the conclusion is indeed as reported. At current fossil fuel prices all other forms of electricity generation need subsidies to compete. That is the perceived problem, of course. But the subsidies required by nuclear are one third that required by wind power. We would, therefore, in a rational political system -- one not infected with prejudices in favor or against particular methods of generation -- opt for nuclear. The money saved could be spent elsewhere....and a quick back of the envelope calculation shows that the sum saved is just about equal to our commitments to aiding the poor in the Third World, somewhere around that 0.7% of GDP that we should spend in aid under the Millennium Development Goals. "Go Nuclear and Make Poverty History!" perhaps?

These numbers obviously apply to the UK but there seems to be little reason they would not apply in other countries. Indeed, I would suggest that, given the distances that power must be transported in the US, that the numbers would stack up even further in nuclear's favor.

There is also a more general feeling floating around that fuel cells don't or won't actually work, or if they will, that it will all arrive far too late to be of any use. On this front there has recently been some good news from the Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance (SECA). This is, as you probably don't know, among the major ways that the US Government (and yes, the Bush Administration, which has increased funding from the original Clinton era numbers) is aiding in dealing with the threat of climate change. Not, as Monbiot would wish (nor the millions who support Kyoto) by reduction in energy usage, but by that rather Yankee idea of going and inventing something to solve the problem. In this case, solid oxide fuel cells which meet the required cost and energy conversion ratios (I would point out that while I work on the fringes of this field, I am not involved with SECA) for the entire idea of the hydrogen economy to work. Even better, they have reached one of the milestones some 5 years early.

Some years ago Bjorn Lomborg was generally derided for stating, in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, that while global warming was indeed happening, was indeed being caused by humans, it was not, in fact, a long term problem. His specific point was that the price of solar generation was coming down so much faster than that of fossil, that sometime between 2020 and 2050, we will simply switch and the problem of fossil emissions will be over. This has been described as the "Technology will save us argument" and indeed it is, just as Monbiot's argument is that the technology of medieval peasantry is what will save us. It is not whether but which technology will save us.

From where I sit I tend to think of Lomborg as a pessimist on this matter. I can see the efforts, such as those at SECA, being made to provide a non-carbon emitting lifestyle, and I can see that they are coming much faster than he supposed, faster than anyone really thought possible only five years ago. It just is so delightful to be able to combine the daily exigencies of making a living with the joys of epater les Moonbats.

The author is an entrepreneur and TCS contributor. Find more of his writing here.



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