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Posted by on Nov 24, 2010 in Arts & Entertainment, Economy, Science & Technology, Society | 0 comments

How To Save Society And The Planet Too: A Book Review of Prescription For The Planet

Ron has had an increasing amount of posts about the coming energy shortages that are going to threaten industrial society. The estimates are converging across nations and social groups: we have already hit peak conventional oil and it is almost definite we will have sizeable overall oil shortfalls by 2015. Various agencies across the world project this to be around 10 million barrels per day or about 15% of total demand. This will cause oil to skyrocket to unimaginable levels or lead to a commensurate decline in economic activity. In other words, we are out of time to avoid the first wave of shortfalls.

One of the criticisms about the energy peaker-environmental movement is that it doesn’t offer any “solutions.” Yet this criticism is loaded because it has an implicit assumption that is never stated: it demands solutions that will maintain the current socio-economic paradigm. Well there aren’t any and at this point the rise of propaganda in the press to cover over this fact is becoming interesting. For instance, in a recent New York Times piece they go to great lengths to not only dismiss problems but to portray an era of unbridled prosperity! Of course even a cursory amount of skepticism shreds the piece apart. Embedded in the narrative is the acceptance that the age of cheap oil is waning (but that’s ok because of the unconventional oils) and anyway we have tons of natural gas (a hundred years supply at current consumption rate!) that we will undoubtedly transition over to to get around the oil prices (but wait, what is the supply of NG at the new consumption rate?). With an energy 101 education the piece is even worse as it glosses over the fact that the natural gas supplies are continuously revised upward because it assumes the safety and efficacy of fracking techniques that haven’t been proven yet. In fact there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that fracking delivers far less extractable gas than claimed at a far higher environmental and health cost. It also ignores the concept of energy return on energy invested of non-conventional oil. Conventional oil is around 80-100, meaning an barrel of oil of energy use returns 80-100. Non conventional is 20 on the high end (some deep water) and 3-4 once you start talking about the heavier tar sands. This means that thermodynamically we will have a lot less usable energy from these deposits, so in order to compare to a Middle East oil field you should divide the announcements of new finds by 4-20 based on their type. Once this is done the numbers quickly fall apart.

It’s been assumed (and feared by people that are worried about CO2) that the world would transition to coal as a stop gap measure, but there is increasing evidence that peak coal energy extraction (not total amount, but the net energy from it) will peak in around a decade as well. Of course there is growing consensus that not only will global temperatures rise to the top of the models but that the environment/weather is far more sensitive than previously imagined; so we’re going to be forced to do without expanding coal one way or another.

Renewables can’t plug the gap in nearly enough time.

All of this combined it is evident that our current industrial paradigm is finished. Finito. No mas. Ron has been covering that well enough and the intellectually honest disagreement is about what society will look like afterwards. It ranges to apocalyptic to pre-industrial to low impact techno-localization. The latter posits that we have made enough technological and scientific advances that it is possible for most localities to produce the majority of their needs while maintaining a high standard of living and trade can be relegated back to its historic role of luxuries. In this paradigm travel is a luxury but we’ll hardly be starving…the trick is how to transition without everyone getting blown up.

This is the only realistic positive scenario I’ve seen but a book recommended by DLS has a framework that would actually enable us to continue with our social paradigm largely intact. Not only is it very convincing based on my technical understanding, but I have been unable to find any substantiative criticisms. Indeed it has won plaudits by several physicists and scientific environmentalists.

It has the provocative title Prescription for the Planet: The painless remedy for our energy and environmental crises and is the brainchild of Tom Blees. My emphasis added by the way…with a subtitle that strong my skepticism level was at 11 going in. But, much to my surprise, he managed to (nearly) pull it off. I will give a basic overview while noting that the Australian blog Brave New Climate has an extensive series of posts that comment about its technical merits.

Blees starts out with a few fundamental social premises that frame his narrative:

  • Global warming is the greatest challenge that civilization has faced in a very long time
  • It is unjust that industrialized societies have a high standard of living that is predicated on resource extraction of weaker countries
  • We are running out of time when it comes to cheap fossil fuels
  • Humanity will level off at around 11-12 billion people if there are no great conflicts

One thing that i particularly liked about his book was taking both the status quoers and the green energy wizards to task for proposing models that are unsustainable even for a billion people with high standards of living when the only reason why globalization is being accepted is the promise that nearly everyone will eventually reach it. Unlike most green books he takes great pains to put his solutions in the context of not only industrialized society but helping to build emerging ones, and accurately points out that developing countries are responsible for much of the environmental pollution in their quest to participate in the global economy.

In the first part of the book Blees summarizes the potential sources of energy and blasts away the vast majority of them as being able to contribute anything of significance. He saves his most pointed vitriol towards corn ethanol which is obviously valid (I cannot think of anyone that supports it other than politicians and agribusiness) while being light footed around solar and wind but chastising those proponents for their wishful thinking. This section is very solid and lays to waste the idea of green utopia as it is commonly presented.

Then there is the section on nuclear. While Blees is quick to deride anti-nuclear advocates as being irrational and fear mongering, he makes it clear that he is no fan of the nuclear energy complex himself. He brings up waste and security issues with tepid personal feelings but notes that they are political hurdles of good policy and thus any proposed solution must address them. His biggest issue with reactors though is there isn’t a whole lot of uranium left. If we were to start producing the majority of electricity from nuclear power, we’d only buy a few decades until peak uranium, so we haven’t gotten anywhere.

So, in one fell swoop he has cast aside everything that is commonly discussed. What’s left?

To Blees it is nuclear power (done the right way), a reusable fuel for transport and a way to recycle other materials, including organics that can be made into plastic. Oh yeah and all of the technologies already exist in nearly complete form.

The backbone of Blees’ world is the integrated fast reactor (IFR) which is his name for fast breeder reactors. Unlike the plants currently in usage that use about 1% of the total energy available in the uranium and leave a ton of radioactive waste, IFRs create more radioactive material than they consume in most of the cycle, allowing for nearly 100% energy extraction over the course of several cycles. Blees also takes pains to point out that they are significantly simpler and safer, which will allow for reduced costs through standardization and eliminates any risk of a major leak occurring. Fast breeders have been around since the beginning of the nuclear power age, but the downside is that the fuel that must be reprocessed has a huge amount of weapons grade plutonium and it’s always been seen as a proliferation hazard. The “integrated” part of the IFR is to note that the reprocessing is built into the secure area of the plant, minimizing risk. Moreover, this technique would guarantee that only a very small amount of radioactive waste ever leaves the plant, and that waste is orders of magnitudes more manageable due to a much shorter half life. Oh yeah, and they can use the current waste that we have lying around, which Blees’ calculates that we would be able to run the world for two hundred years without mining ANY more uranium.

The math is simple: without IFR we have about 40 years of uranium left if we were to make it our dominant power source, with IFR we have (including using waste) ~40,000 years! What is astonishing to me, although not mentioned in the book, is that this was known back in the 1950s. I came across a speech by Edward Teller noting that we should use breeder reactors for this very reason (and also to avoid global warming due to excessive CO2 emissions) that was given in 1961 I believe. The science has always been on the IFR side, it’s just politics that has gotten in the way, and believe you me, Blees has a bit to say about that. He has a fascinating tale about the government’s research into this technology and Clinton’s success in killing it (well to be entirely accurate it was John Kerry but Clinton didn’t stand up for it).

In any case, Blees is on fire about the potential for IFR to the point that he gets highly repetitive and I started skimming the book because he started making the same points from a thousand different directions. But there is a reason for this as it powers the most innovative part of the book.

Imagine that you could drive a car that a) had no emissions, b) had entirely reusable fuel and c) had similar energy density to gasoline. That would be the perfect car to me and I would have thought science fiction. Blees says it’s possible through the magic of boron. He points out that fine grains of boron will combust in a 100% O2 environment to form boron oxide in an exothermic reaction that is sufficient to power a car. To make matters even better, boron oxide can be turned back into boron through electrolysis. Using these facts he imagines a car that is fueled with pure boron and has a built in oxygen extractor to grab O2 out of the air. Add in a powerful electrical system and this setup gives us the ABC above, with the quirk that instead of the car getting lighter as fuel was burned, it’d actually get heavier (O2 would be continually reacting with the boron, adding weight). He has some numbers and shows that boron itself has an energy capacity that exceeds gasoline but that the fully reacted boron would make it about the same, so cars would most likely travel around the same distance they do now.

After all the boron was reacted he imagines that you could go to a convenience store, drop off your used boron and pick up a new block. That boron could then be shipped to a reprocessing center that would make it good as new and send it back out. Thus as long as we have a huge amount of electricity (conveniently provided by the IFRs) we would be able to drive to our hearts’ content without worrying about any environmental impact once the initial amount of boron was extracted.

He argues that financially and politically this setup is great because it requires very little added infrastructure to get started. The construction of even one reprocessing plant could serve all the initial adopters of the technology as the boron blocks could be shipped over rail, so there is no need for pipelines or complex storage. Moreover, he calculates that the per gallon equivalent would conservatively be about 45 cents a gallon, although I feel that he went out of his way to add in more costs than needed. Based on the amount of electricity that regenerating uses, even 45 cents a gallon would give a four-five times larger profit margin to the transporters and retailers than currently exists for gasoline. I really could see no flaw in his suggestion other than the fact that small O2 compressors don’t exist yet, but that is an issue that I feel confident can be overcome although I haven’t done the math myself to make sure about the rates of compression are realistic given the physical constraints.

This overview is getting long but there is one final piece to his technovision: plasma incinerators can be used to recycle basically all garbage. I’ll be very brief but the basic idea is that you dump all your garbage through plasma that operates at such high temperatures that it tears apart things to their molecular level. Organics will naturally be able to be extracted in gaseous form and those can be used to do all sorts of neat things like make plastics, while metals can be theoretically extracted based on their molecular weights. He has a lot of detail but the short end of it is that we should be able to reuse nearly 100% of the elements in products for a cost far cheaper than mining virgin sources. I felt that this particular chapter was the weakest as it is by far the most speculative in how difficult it will be to separate the different materials out of the sludge that is created. Indeed, the incinerators I’ve found that are operational only extract the organic gases and ignore everything else, and even then there are some issues. I can see that theoretically his vision will work but it will require a lot of research and experimentation before anything close to it can be approximated.

All of the above is in the first half of the book, the latter half is about the politics of implementing the vision, which is almost as interesting as the technology itself. However, unlike the technical aspects, I imagine there will be a ton of disagreement about his politics, although it is a view that I wholeheartedly support. If there is interest I can summarize that at a later date.

I highly recommend that everyone reads this book and am amazed that DLS hasn’t pointed to it more than a few times. Blees not only does a good job of providing enough information to win over technical skeptics such as myself, but he does it in such an engaging fashion that I imagine general readers will be able to communicate the logic behind his vision with ease. His writing style is full of energy and barbs but never becomes detached from his larger messaging of inclusiveness. Honestly his wit and passion is much needed in this area as most of the genre breaks down to hyperventilation in one camp and accurate but exceedingly boring writing that will never stir anyone to action in the other.

My biggest problem with the book was that it was too good. While I have always been a believer that we can overcome the challenges of the 21st century through clear proactive thinking, I’m growing increasingly pessimistic that we will be able to do it for political reasons. At least I could always take comfort in the fact that what I believed was necessary was a huge paradigmatic shift to society on all levels, so it was understandable that it wouldn’t be embraced except as a reactionary move. To be convinced that there is actually a straightforward and practical way of addressing the problems in our current paradigm, that we have known how to do most of it for decades and that it is no where to be seen? Well that’s harder to swallow. I just hope that these ideas will leak out to the point that in a few years it will provide a blueprint for governments around the world to embrace as a long term vision.