Four months ago I posted Foggy Forecasts for Clean Energy Futures that peered down the dark well of climate change diagnoses and concluded:
Most of the predictions push us up to somewhere between two and three degrees of warming where it would no longer be possible to maintain global civilization as we know it today, and the worst take us above 5 degrees and human extinction by the end of the century. Ninety-five percent of humanity is completely unaware of this … if you mention climate change to the average person on the street in China, India, Thailand, Latin America, or Africa, it is likely you will just get a blank stare.
What most people do see is all of the windmills and solar electric arrays popping up across the landscape like California mountain poppies after rain. Having been indoctrinated for decades that solar cells are too expensive and windmills kill birds, people are suddenly finding themselves bereft of Tucker Carlson. In the urgency wrought of wildfire, floods and superstorms, expensive and lethal coal and nuclear plants, the darlings of the Right, are giving way to safe, green energy.
Also in that Foggy Forecasts essay, and in the one that followed, I asked the musical question, “Can we build out renewable energy fast enough to avoid some nasty tipping points?” An ancillary question is whether renewables can scale to the point where they can achieve the development goals for 8 billion people, or whether some contraction of consumer civilization is inevitable.
As we watch aghast the sudden conflict between warlords in Sudan—a nation larger in size than France, Spain, Sweden, and Germany combined—it is difficult to imagine daily temperatures of 43C or 109F did not play a role in “rapid unexpected disassembly,” to borrow a term from SpaceX.
These events should be focusing attention. It is difficult to explain why denialism still holds sway in so many chambers of government. In the US Congress, Republicans plus Joe Manchin are proposing to repeal the Biden Administration’s billion-dollar IRA climate bill and are holding up the billion-dollar 2023-4 farm bill with climate change funding at its core. Their polls show that running against climate change is a winning path to public office, so why not just criminalize climate change the same as we do with addiction or mental illness and be done with it? Why spend money to treat it?
In these posts, I often try to shine a light on the downsides of technological solutions to climate change. They are too expensive, wealth-disequilibriating, and energy-and-nonrenewables intensive. I’ve offered instead simpler, less costly, natural solutions like tree-planting, agroforestry, soil and reef regeneration, or coastal kelp forests—literally the low-hanging fruit. Still, energy is important if the challenge is to sustain some modicum of civilization as we transition from “sustaining” a consumer economy to an ecosystem-regenerative paradigm.
Energy from Spin
Three promising large-scale “natural” energy sources can help. All of these employ aikido—redirecting a force coming at you to your advantage rather than opposing it with equal force. These newer techs bend gigantic, cosmic forces—Earth’s spin, Earth’s heat, and subtle differences in temperature or gravity.
Many years ago at a conference in México, I met a Guatemalan engineer who wanted to raise 80 million quetzals to lay pipe from mountains down and into the ocean over a distance of 364,000 feet (69 miles) and a drop of 7,280 feet (1:50 slope). He had noticed that the waters on the planet have different speeds over distance depending on how far they are from Earth’s central axis. His idea was to channel water into a large pipe at 45°N and exit it at 46°N. Using only the rotational energy of the Earth, the same that powers cyclones and hurricanes, and deducting losses from friction and pump energy (9.6 GWe), he estimated he could produce the equivalent of 48 large nuclear plants—48 GWe—from any pipe having an internal diameter of 25 meters.
In a simplified way, it can be said that if we pass a mass of water from a geographical point of higher speed to a geographical point of lower speed through a pipeline with turbine-generators, we can produce abundant and unlimited electrical energy.
— Fradique Lee Duarte, Energia Geo Rotational
I doubt he got funded or we likely would be hearing racy stories about the exploits of the Guatemalan superrich.
A second new tech employs the heat that Earth has been exhausting to space ever since it was a molten blob of star magma, then hardening into an iron rock orbiting its mother star. The temperature in the inner core remains about 5,200° Celsius (9,392° Fahrenheit)—about the surface of the Sun. Just the decay of the radioactive stardust in the core produces a continuous 30 terawatts of energy. You only have to go down a few miles to reach 1000°C.
Since all Eavor needs to work is hot rock, which is pretty reliably located beneath almost any site in the world, it avoids the need for expensive exploration and modeling.
Advanced geothermal systems (AGS) refers to a new generation of “closed loop” systems, in which no fluids are introduced to or extracted from the Earth and there’s no fracking. Cheng’s system, called an Eavor-Loop, uses two vertical wells around 1.5 miles apart connected by a horizontally arrayed series of lateral tunnels, in a kind of radiator design, to maximize surface area and soak up as much heat as possible. Because the loop is closed, cool water on one side sinks while hot water on the other side rises, creating a “thermosiphon” effect that circulates the water naturally, with no need for a pump. Without the parasitic load of a pump, Eavor can make profitable use of relatively low heat, around 150°C, available almost anywhere about a mile and a half down.
An Icelandic Ecovillage
Twenty years ago, on a trip to Iceland, I visited the world’s oldest continuously operating ecovillage, Sólheimar (place of the sun), founded by Sesselja Sigmondsdottir in 1933. They had some lovely old Jacobs wood-bladed wind generators but most of their power was geothermal. Just inside the entrance to their community center, I saw a metal box on the wall not much larger than a shoe box. It powered the whole building on the temperature difference between the warmth of their hot spring and the cold outdoors, using an array of bimetallic strips that expanded or contracted in response to temperature, generating an electrical current on that differential. In the Icelandic winter, Sólheimar has so much excess energy that they conduct steam under the sidewalks so they don’t have to shovel snow.
In this image, we can see the constant temperature of the Earth at a depth of 10 km. There is nowhere in the continental USA without sufficient geothermal energy to power all human industry above ground. The question not asked as often as it should be is whether that is a good thing.
Is it not a dangerous idea to give hairless apes who have demonstrated little regard for, or any duties or responsibilities towards, the web of life, now with a gradually shrinking brain size atrophied by comforts gained at the expense of all other lifeforms, unlimited energy? Can we even imagine the ever-greater harm such a boon might bring?
Larger questions loom. Are there in fact limits to this unlimited energy? In Iceland, a number of geothermal power stations have been phased out after decades of use because they lowered the temperature of the deep rock enough to make pumping more water into the formation impractical.
If enough of my Guatemalan friend’s pipes were laid across lines of latitude worldwide, might that not slow the spin of the planet? While New Yorkers or Londoners might appreciate a longer minute, it is not necessarily a benefit to alter the speed of deep ocean currents or the diurnal cycles of birds and insects. We aren’t there yet, but we need to ask ourselves whether megascale projects are really aikido, or whether they are just more hubris disguised as green energy.
The problem, in the final analysis, is not a deficit of energy. It is a deficit of wisdom.