Saturday, May 31, 2008
The cleanest energy source we could ever hope to achieve is ideal direct mass-to-energy conversion. By "ideal" I mean the hopeless dream of "It has 100% efficiency and has no waste products other than useable energy". That is, all matter gets converted to energy (e.g. electricity) with 100% conversion efficiency. There would be enough energy in your cup of tea to go to the Moon.
Even if that kind of thing were possible, it ultimately has an inherent flaw that will lead to the demise of our ecosystem. This hypothetical ideal cleanest fuel can bring us toward the salting of the Earth. The inherent flaw is not in the method of energy production, it is in our existing habit of wasteful consumption of energy beyond ecosystem stability.
There is currently much speculation that we have hit peak oil, and that from this point on world oil production will start to decrease. Unfortunately much of the world economy is sitting on a foundation of oil production. Oil products power everything from electrical grids to international trade ships to domestic shipping to commuting (both personal and public transport). If world oil production drops off, so too will the world economy (at least until we find some other cheaply available portable commodity energy source). However, instead of planning for this contingency of radically multiplied transport costs by trying to live within a smaller energy footprint, people are still merrily driving their SUVs to the corner store and leaving them running while they go in for a pack of smokes. We are literally driving ourselves to the brink of economic collapse, and if not that, ecological collapse. This is just another symptom of the underlying cause: as a species we either do not know how to construct a society that lives within the sustainable energy limits of our ecosystem (i.e. not consuming Earth's stored energy) , or we simply do not care (in great enough numbers) to change the way our energy-consuming societies operate.
Even the best source of clean energy still pollutes our ecosystem: The energy liberated from direct mass conversion on Earth will ultimately wind up as heat pollution in our ecosystem - heat that was not previously there. Our global temperatures will start to rise as surely as global warming due to extensive fossil fuel use, albeit probably more slowly. The extra heat in our ecosystem will ultimately have to be removed to maintain balance. Without removal, the Earth will hit an equilibrium between heat production (via terrestrial mass conversion) and thermal radiation into space. Expect the temperature this worldwide exothermic balance to be more in the surface-of-the-planet-Venus-hot range, not in the Miami Beach hot range. In a word, bad.
Our current world energy oil consumption, in spite of the linked global warming trend, demonstrates quite clearly what will happen to this world, even with the cleanest greenest energy source available. We, as a species, don't know how to live within our limits. It's not the energy source that's bad for us; it's us that's bad for us.
Burton MacKenZie www.burtonmackenzie.com