There’s a lot of optimism on both the center-left and the right that all we really need to do to tackle the problem of global warming/peak oil is throw a hell of a lot of money at the problem, and presto!…Yes, we found petroleum to replace whale oil. This does not therefore mean, as night follows day, that we will find something to replace petroleum. We will find something to replace petroleum if there is something that can replace petroleum. There might not be.
Well, actually, there is always a new source of energy to replace any old energy source. It just might not be the energy source we fantasize about.
Energy begets energy. Technological history has been one of using one source of energy to bootstrap the production of new and more powerful forms of energy. We started with wood, which we used to capture energy from wind and water. Then we used wood, wind and water to capture energy from coal and whale oil. Then we used wood, wind, water, whale oil and coal to capture energy from petroleum. We used coal and petroleum to start to capture energy from nuclear power. The more energy you use, the more energy you can harvest from the universe.
So why do we find ourselves running out of energy? Because we chose to.
Although the universe is stuffed with energy, with any given technology, we can only harvest energy from certain sources. Thomas Jefferson could not have made a photovoltaic power source and Caesar could not have mined coal from hundreds of meters below the ground. We have to exploit the energy sources that we can reach with the tools we have.
Our political classes, especially on the left, have forgotten, or never learned, this hard fact of life. Instead, they’ve looked over the history of our technological achievement and concluded that we can simply create any energy source we wish to. They created a set of parameters for a desired energy source that depends not on technology and science but rather on emotional social and political factors.
Technologists have been handed a list of requirements that not even Santa Claus could fulfill. In no particular order, the fantasy power source must: have no environmental side-effects, be decentralized, produce power in all locations and all environmental conditions, produce enough power to replace all carbon-emitting, hydroelectric and nuclear power. Oh, and they want it tomorrow, before the ice caps melt and kill us all!
In essence, we’ve gone about energy policy backwards. Instead of taking stock of our technology and seeing what energy we can harvest with it, we’ve decide what kind of energy source we want and then, not unlike king Canute, tried to order the creation of a technology without regard to limitations. It’s as if we took a notion that all cell phones should be made of turnips and then blocked all manufacture of non-turnip cell phones while showering money on people trying to figure out how to give a turnip a ringtone.
We need to grow up and accept reality. We’ve exhausted the limits of chemical energy. Using biomass, solar and wind power represents a reversion to older and weaker sources of power. Instead, we need to follow the natural progression of technology and use nuclear energy. With our current and near-future technology, only nuclear power can give us the amount of energy we need, where and when we need it.
I think it important to emphasize that we would need to move to nuclear energy even if we had an infinite supply of fossil fuels and an infinite carbon dioxide sink. Fossil fuels just don’t have the energy density we will need moving into the future. We can no more power the 21st Century with fossil fuels than we could have powered the 20th Century using nothing but wood. Only nuclear power provides energy in sufficient density to power the future.
We should always remember that we can perish by failing to grasp the technological options available to us. The history of technology is littered with examples of societies that suppressed useful new technology for political or social reasons. We can’t repeat those mistakes and survive.
We need to use the technology we have to harvest the energy we can instead of holding our breath and stomping our feet until the technology fairy brings us what we want.
[Addendum: McArdle links to this excellent post that discusses why we won’t pull a super battery out our hat anytime soon, if ever. That post links to this table showing the energy densities of various technologies. Nuclear power has a density of 1,500,000,000 megajoules per liter. The very best non-nuclear power source, liquid hydrogen, has a density of only 143 megajoules per liter. The very best batteries available have a lower power density than wood. Starting at the bottom of the chart you can see the bootstrap of energy technology as each technology creates an even denser technology in turn.]