Back to the Sustainable Energy Transition: The Physics of Sustainability and Some Tweets About it.

In the last blog I strongly advocated simplifying the conversation about climate change, focusing on how we can get from the present “business as usual” scenario to an “environmentally friendly” scenario that will not result in an environment inhospitable to adaptation. The recent IPCC report summarized the difference between the two scenarios with this graph, which I also showed last week:

IPCC Global average surface temperature changeI will elaborate on the two scenarios and their implications in future blogs.

Meanwhile, I would like to highlight some recent activities that have been occupying my time and which I hope might help clarify the process of changing from scenario one to the other. Let’s start with two events:

  1. I was invited by the editors of a new journal of the Material Research Society (MRS), which focuses on energy and sustainability, to write a review article entitled “Energy and Sustainability, from the point of view of Environmental Physics.” The title was suggested by one of the journal’s editors, and I make a point not to argue with editors. However, I am free to interpret the title as I see fit and set the boundaries of the article. I will start by using my previous definition (January 28, 2013 blog): I define sustainability as the condition that we have to develop here to flourish until we can develop the technology for extraterrestrial travel that will allow us to move to another planet once we ruin our own.” In principle, a scenario such as the RCP2.6 scenario, is supposed to get us there. I’ll be writing the article over the next two months, hopefully focusing on the challenges that face material research scientists as they struggle to develop materials that will help to take us from the present “business as usual” scenario to the RCP2.6 scenario.
  1. The second event developed out of a request that I got over Twitter to write something about a new article by David MacKay, where he discussed the storage requirements of such a transition. I liked the paper and summarized my response in a short blog that I posted here on August 8th.

There was a small buzz over that response, which I am including below.

John Morgan @JohnDPMorgan  Aug 11
@sydnets
@MichaTomkiewicz @nuclear94 Cost and capacity are not the issue. EROI of renewables are degraded below viable level by storage.

 Jeff Terry ‏@nuclear94 Aug 11
@JohnDPMorgan @sydnets @MichaTomkiewicz capacity is an issue. No one knows how to store and extract energy of that magnitude.

 Jeff Terry ‏@nuclear94 Aug 11
@JohnDPMorgan @sydnets @MichaTomkiewicz 36 TWhr of storage is 9x annual output of Hoover Dam. Good luck with that.

@nuclear94 @sydnets @MichaTomkiewicz What @JohnDPMorgan said was that capacity is not *the* issue, not that it isn’t an issue.

Ben McCombe ‏@BenMcCombe Aug 11
@nuclear94 @sydnets @MichaTomkiewicz @JohnDPMorgan If EROI issue can’t be resolved, then storage is a no go whatever the capacity.

Jeff Terry ‏@nuclear94 Aug 11
@BenMcCombe @sydnets @MichaTomkiewicz @JohnDPMorgan assuming one’s survival does not depend upon it.

John Morgan ‏@JohnDPMorgan 19h
@BenMcCombe @nuclear94 @sydnets @MichaTomkiewicz Ben’s reading is correct. The EROI problem is intractable, even if we had free TWh capacity

Jeff Terry ‏@nuclear94 19h
@JohnDPMorgan @BenMcCombe @sydnets @MichaTomkiewicz depends upon how bad the problem gets.

Dadiva Netter ‏@sydnets 19h
@nuclear94 @JohnDPMorgan @BenMcCombe @MichaTomkiewicz could further innovation make a difference?

John Morgan ‏@JohnDPMorgan 19h
@nuclear94 @BenMcCombe @sydnets @MichaTomkiewicz Solar, wind + storage is either in energy deficit, or too low positive to work. Pretty bad.

John Morgan ‏@JohnDPMorgan 19h
@sydnets @nuclear94 @BenMcCombe @MichaTomkiewicz I don’t think so. The leading edge of storage EROI is earthmoving.

Jeff Terry ‏@nuclear94 19h
@sydnets @JohnDPMorgan @BenMcCombe @MichaTomkiewicz miracles can always make a difference.

Jeff Terry ‏@nuclear94 17h
@MichaTomkiewicz @sydnets @JohnDPMorgan @BenMcCombe the energy density is still not there.

John Morgan ‏@JohnDPMorgan 15h
@MichaTomkiewicz @nuclear94 @sydnets @BenMcCombe There is no storage tech that can store wind or solar energy at adequate system EROI.

John Morgan ‏@JohnDPMorgan 15h
@MichaTomkiewicz @nuclear94 @sydnets @BenMcCombe Nothing on the horizon, either.

John Morgan ‏@JohnDPMorgan 15h
Throwing our limited resources at incapable tech is the functional
equivalent to giving up. @MichaTomkiewicz @nuclear94 @sydnets @BenMcCombe

John Morgan ‏@JohnDPMorgan 15h
“Not giving up” just means shifting our efforts to directions that can yield
results. @MichaTomkiewicz @nuclear94 @sydnets @BenMcCombe

Twitter responses are by their nature short, but a collection of them can be relevant and informative. EROI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) is an important concept that was brought up several times in the conversation, but it’s something that I have not yet mentioned in the two years that I have been writing this blog. John Morgan recently wrote an article on the issue and I have invited him to post a guest blog that goes into some more detail. It touches on a very fundamental issue: one cannot develop a new energy source that requires more energy for production than that which it generates. It’s long been the “gold standard” for approximating the remaining level of fossil fuels available. If, for instance, there is an oil deposit that requires more energy (and money) to extract than that gained by its extraction, no one would bother with the effort (therefore, that deposit is not counted among available resources). With sustainable energy sources the estimates are a bit more complicated but the concept remains the same.

Stay tuned.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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2 Responses to Back to the Sustainable Energy Transition: The Physics of Sustainability and Some Tweets About it.

  1. taylor sinkiewicz says:

    My experience at the climate change mark was quite remarkable. I had planned to go with three of my girlfriends whom I met when I attended West Virginia University and we have all stayed close ever since: we all live in the New York/New Jersey area so we try to see each other relatively frequently. I had planned for the four of us to go to the climate march, I gave a brief synopsis of why it is important and even bribed my friends a little in saying we would go get drinks somewhere after. In the days leading up to the march one by one each of my three girlfriends backed out, while I was disappointed that this happened I was forced to come to the conclusion that what is important to one person may not be important to another. However this was frustrating for me to cope with because an event of this stature SHOULD be important to everyone because it is OUR earth and we are responsible for her wellbeing; to me it should absolutely not be a matter of opinion whether this is significant or not, rather than a matter of survival. Regardless I went to the march alone unknowing of what I would expect. I started the march at 62nd street and when I walked up the stairs from the subway I was immediately suffocated by what seemed like thousands of people on that street alone. Normally when you are bombarded by a crowd of people like that one is automatically overwhelmed and flustered and frustrated; although I was overwhelmed it was in a great and profound way. I honestly had no idea that the march was going to be as massive as it was. The march brought together a vast variety of people however we all seemed to be equally in tune with one another. The immense amounts of effort and hard work that it took hundreds, probably thousands of devoted and loyal individuals to help construct the largest climate rally in the history of the world is astounding. Many posters, banners, chants, and miscellaneous occurrences brought tears to my eyes, things as simple as seeing a little girl walking side by side with her parents carrying a “Save our Mother” sign; our children are our future therefore it is of the utmost importance that they are involved in this movement equally as much as us adults are. I surprised myself a lot when I joined in with chants such as, “Hey Obama, we don’t want no fracking drama,” or when someone would burst out with, “Show me what democracy looks like!” and a mass of people would respond, “THIS is what democracy looks like.” I felt a sense of empowerment and I cannot be anymore thankful for my presence at the climate march September 21, 2014, a day that will go down in history. At the end of the march there was a “block party” that included many different indigenous public speakers, including one incredibly astounding young Native American female. The words that she was preaching to the audience involving climate change, why it is important that we work together, how each and every person can make a difference, etc were making my jaw drop. This young lady was wise beyond her years and at the age of 22 I can most certainly say I look up to that little 13 year old more so than most of the adults in my life. Also at the block party was something called the climate ribbon; in this area were multiple cardboard trees that were colored beautifully, these trees were supposed to represent the trees of life. When you entered the climate ribbon area you were handed a thick ribbon and a marker and were to write on the ribbon what it was that you did not want to lose to climate change, then you were to tie your ribbon onto one of the branches of the trees of life. Next you were to choose a ribbon that someone else wrote that resonated with you the most and tie that one on your wrist; it was an amazing project. Not only was the climate march influential and inspiring but it was a privilege to attend.

  2. Pingback: Guest Blog: John Morgan: The Catch-22 of Energy Storage and EROI | ClimateChangeFork

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