The Four Biggest Energy Cliches of 2008

Clean coal, geoengineering, cellulosic alcohol, next-generation nuclear: What they have in common is that they all sound great and basically donâ''t exist. Itâ''s not that theyâ''re bad ideas as such, it just that so far theyâ''re little but ideas. Individually and collectively, they suggest that quite soon, weâ''ll have energy thatâ''s renewable or sustainable or carbon-free without our having to make any difficult choices right now about how to immediately make our energy economy greener and more climate-friendly.

For a dose of reality about clean coal, go to Reality, the organization thatâ''s been blanketing the airwaves and putting ads in many magazines. Reality emphasizes the elementary reality out that so far no commercial scale plant has been built anywhere in the world in which carbon emissions are captured and permanently stored. By most estimates the first such plant is at least five or ten years off. And of course it will be years later than that before CC&S makes much of a dent in aggregate emissions from coal-fired plants, which in the United States account for one third of carbon emissions.

This of course doesnâ''t mean that clean coal is a bad idea, just that we donâ''t have it yet. The same goes for climate modification schemes, which were recently reviewed in this space. Arguably, the world is not going to be able to reduce emissions fast enough to eliminate the possibility of dangerous climate change in the next generation, and so we shouldnâ''t exclude any optionsâ''maybe one or more of the geoengineering ideas will materialize and be demonstrated soon enough to mitigate some of the worst effects of human induced global warming.

But thereâ''s also the danger, and itâ''s a real one, that too much focus on geoengineering might produce complacency and delay constructive actions that can be taken right now to reduce GHG. One of the few benign effects of the global recession is that carbon emissions are sure to have been much lower than expected in the past year, and they likely will be lower still in 2009. Carbon reduction targets that seemed utterly unrealistic at the beginning of 2008 might now appear achievable after all.

Another silver lining: cellulosic alcohol has provided farm state politicians and the new Democratic leadership a graceful retreat from whatâ''s proved to be a reckless love affair with corn ethanol. As food prices have been driven up nationally and globally by the diversion of cropland to corn ethanol production, so-called â''next-generationâ'' ethanol gives politicians a way to say theyâ''re still for ethanol, even as they start to devise ways to cut back the current ill-considered subsidies. Even cellulosic ethanol may turn out to be not such a great deal in terms of energy and greenhouse gas balances, but we can cross that bridge when we get there, if we get there.

A general problem with â''next generationâ'' technologies is that people assume that sooner or later weâ''re almost sure to have them, even though in fact thereâ''s no guarantee theyâ''ll ever work and be economically viable. People have been talking for decades about the desirability of having nuclear reactors that are smaller, modular, significantly cheaper, more inherently safe, and proliferation-resistant. The trouble is, whenever anybody actually comes up with an idea for one, utilities around the world show absolutely no interest in buying it. So weâ''re not noticeably closer to next-generation nuclear than we were in 1980, when U.S. utilities stopped ordering additional reactors.

On this merry note, A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL!


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