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The Forum > Article Comments > Unproven technologies a poor power option > Comments

Unproven technologies a poor power option : Comments

By Martin Nicholson, published 1/8/2011

We've had renewable energy power for 40 years and it has yet to produce commercially competitive power. Will anything be different in 2050?

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Martin Nicholsonís sober piece prompts a general question about emerging technologies, and energy technologies in particular: Can one rely on a developing technology, like say fuel cells or geothermal energy, eventually becoming commercially successful (and socially useful at the same time) provided that enough time, effort and funding are forthcoming? The answer to this question, implied more often than not, is Ďyesí.

How can this be so? For if it is true of one such technology it must be true of all, and that simply cannot be correct, since some technologies simply must turn out to be superior to others.

So how does one decide, or at least get clues for deciding, which technologies to support with time, effort and funding? Well, precisely as Nicholson does, by reviewing their history. For energy technologies this history is especially rich. Promises, largely unfulfilled, litter the history of energy technology development. And thatís where to look if you want to make the best guesses about the future.

Frankly it does not bother me when speculative investors make decisions based on the promises, or the closest thing to promises that our stock market regulators allow in prospectuses, of new technology businesses. Itís when governments do it that I start to see red. And as Nicholson points out, we now have our very own Treasury, no doubt pandering to the wishes of its masters, punting on future energy scenarios that emulate the decision making processes of the most speculative commercial investor. Trouble is, Treasury canít lose. Nor can governments that throw money at technologies they desperately hope will be winners. The one factor that brings discipline to investment decisions is absent. They are almost guaranteed to be wrong
Posted by Tombee, Monday, 1 August 2011 10:37:13 AM
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The only technology that presently provides any hope of base load supply for peak demand (at 7pm) is the solar hot salt systems, with gas back up, and even this generates power at 4x the cost of nuclear.

Juliar Gillard points to Britain's ambitious emission reduction targets, but conveniently forgets that much of this is achieved by the construction of new reactors.
Posted by Shadow Minister, Monday, 1 August 2011 10:38:24 AM
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Never the less, it all falls over because the whole alternative
energy project as visualised is dependant on business as usual.

In a time of zero growth and energy depletion a different priority
needs to be assigned to alternative energy programs.
I do not have the deeper knowledge needed to set the required
priorities but to construct the new systems in a time of zero growth
will be a monumental challenge.
We will not be able to afford to ignore our coal assets is just one
area that will require a major rethink.

How to finance the alternative energy projects in a time of zero
growth will only be possible by either cancelling major existing
projects or suspending urgent projects.
Even some wind projects should be shelved as their return is too poor
to get in the way of more important energy projects.
We may have to suspend the export of coal and natural gas to give us
time to get the permanent projects up and running.

Unless we restructure our alternative energy project away from the
business as usual global warming regime we will fail to have
sufficient energy to run a recognisable economy.
Unfortunately governments are generally terrified of facing the twin
problems of zero growth and energy depletion nothing will happen until
there are mile long queues at service stations.
Posted by Bazz, Monday, 1 August 2011 12:11:32 PM
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On the whole I agree with the piece, but I think there's a glaring logical leap the author makes. He says:"If we haven't managed to prove up commercial-scale electricity generation from hot rocks or solar thermal after 40 years, what makes us so confident about CCS?"

Well, for a start, CCS is effectively subsidised by the fact that CO2/CO are waste products. This means they have an inherent cost of disposal, which effectively subsidises their reuse. As the CEO of Monomer, a company spun off from Cornell Uni to commercialise CCS-based polymers, put it: " You couldn't get a better feedstock than CO2. you actually get paid to use it."

On top of that is the fact that CCS technology is already being utilised, both here and overseas. It already HAS some proven tech, although there are lots of blue-sky proposals about as well.

Further, it actually produces something and reduces the need for fossil carbon at the same time. The hotrock tech you mention is just a fairly inefficient form of mining and it too could be improved with better energy density possible using super critical CO2 than using water, as well as no tendency to dissolve minerals into the hot stream.

All this stuff is freely available in the public domain for investigation. I urge the author to do so.
Posted by Antiseptic, Monday, 1 August 2011 12:32:45 PM
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This is an interesting essay. In 1970 I was involved in the Telecom 2000 project, in which the then Telecom tried to guess what society would be like when we were operating on silicon fibre rather than copper wire. I've forgotten a lot of that enjoyable experience, but I do remember our being asked to specify the two technological advances that we thought were possible by 2000 that would have the greatest effect.

My two were a small but very powerful fuel cell, and the cheap desalination of sea water. It is now 41 years since the T 2000 study, and neither of my nominations has quite made it, though considerable advances have been made in both areas.

The reason is alluded to in Tombee's post above. There has to be demand from the market for people to really go down the research/development/commercialisation path in a big way. I was very supportive of solar energy research in the 1980s, and again, considerable advances were achieved in efficiency. But I don't remember much attention to storage at the time, because we were still focussing on moving from black tubes to PV cells, not on what happened when we actually had produced a lot of solar energy and needed to store it for night-time use.

And there still isn't real urgent market demand for solar energy. It only looks like it because governments are picking it as a winner. Same with the fuel cell. Same with CCS. Same with hot rocks. If we didn't have all the fuss about AGW, these developments would be interesting, but not marketable.

In the late 19th century several people in different countries sensed the need for what we call the telephone, as did several other people sensing the need for what we call the motor vehicle. Governments weren't involved at all. And these developments were picked up by the market, and greatly changed the way we live. What we have today is government, pushed by political circumstances, attempting to pick winners. There aren't many successes to point to in this domain!
Posted by Don Aitkin, Monday, 1 August 2011 12:38:38 PM
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Antiseptic points to one project, CCS, that can be abandoned without
difficulty once it is realised that global warming is no longer the
major problem facing us.

What world growth exists has been largely obtained by China and India.
The "Western" countries are getting just about zero growth and the
undeveloped countries will get a good dose of contraction.
Surprisingly, our governments seem surprised with the very low growth
that they are getting in our economies.
It just shows how out of touch they are with reality.
Posted by Bazz, Monday, 1 August 2011 1:02:42 PM
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