Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Celebrate diversity in energy; avoid slavish adherence to favorites

There's been a lot of talk lately in the news about what energy technologies won't work, and which ones ought to be adopted to the exclusion of all others.

My own view is that these are both troublesome positions.

At a time when less than 10 percent of our energy in Hawai'i comes from non-fossil fuel sources, it makes little sense to casually toss any technologies out of consideration—either due to assumptions of their pre-eminence or their perceived flaws.

I begin from three assumptions:

1. Every technology has some downsides. Fossil fuel power systems, as folks in Honolulu know, can be disrupted by earthquakes hundreds of miles away, and impacted by fuel price spikes. Wind doesn't work when there's no wind. Solar doesn't work at night. Hurricanes and tsunami threaten anything built at sea. And so forth.

2. Increasingly, one size doesn't fit all. Geothermal may work on Hawai'i, but probably not on Kaua'i. Solar may not make economic sense in areas with a frequent cloud shadow. OTEC may not work effectively on islands without deep, cold water near shore.

3. Technology changes, and advances. Just 20 years ago, a portable phone required a battery the size of a brick. It's safe to assume that the array of energy options will be somewhat different a decade from now.

I recently wrote a post in which I cited arguments for using every workable technology. One correspondent argued that with was stupid—his term—and that just because some energy systems were feasible didn't mean they were appropriate.

I entirely agreed. Some technologies would not make sense from an economic standpoint, some ought to be rejected from environmental perspectives, some might be too fragile and subject to disruption.

Just because you technically can drive a Mack truck as your primary household vehicle doesn't mean it's a workable option: they use a lot of fuel, they're expensive to garage and they're hard to park downtown. A bicycle, a hybrid or a small pickup truck might better suit your personal needs.

It's a dangerous game to insist that any one energy source, whether it's oil/coal, or waves or even OTEC, is all we need to be working on. There is danger in putting all your eggs in one basket.

If an earthquake can knock out an oil-fired power system, it can also probably take out a windmill. If a hurricane can take out oil platforms, it can probably impact OTEC facilities. A tsunami can probably wipe out wave systems. And so forth.

We've been all-fossil-fuel-all-the-time for so long that for many of us it's a stretch to think about distributed power generation scenarios.

I continue to be a fan of diversity in the energy future. And options. Shucks, 10 years from now, solar thermal might trump all our favorite current renewable alternatives. Or suitcase-sized household cold fusion systems. Or some other nascent technology that only now is wiggling out of the premordial energy slime.

The message then, is to embrace diversity. Celebrate systems that work, but avoid rejecting those that—for now—don't seem ready for prime time.

©2008 Jan TenBruggencate

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