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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

The clunky, lagging transition to renewable energy

History suggests that it can take up to 50 years to replace an existing energy infrastructure, and we don't have that long, Cobb writes.

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What this means is that installing two to three times our current nameplate capacity in the form of renewables may be required to replace existing fossil-fueled plants. So, the transition period would actually turn out to be longer than what I've calculated, perhaps 140 to 210 years using 2005 to 2009 installation figures. Of course, installations of such renewables as wind and solar are accelerating. So, that would tend to shorten this longer transition period--as would leaving existing nuclear power capacity intact. But would we be able to shorten the transition period enough to head off declines in total energy production and prevent additional serious damage to the climate?

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Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, 'Prelude,' and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. He is a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas—USA, and he serves on the board of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. For more of his Resource Insights posts, click here.

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Of course, some would say that we need to expand nuclear power generation rapidly to meet these challenges. Whether you support such an expansion or not, there are three key problems. First, building enough nuclear power stations to replace fossil fuel-fired plants would be the largest construction project ever undertaken and require the use of enormous amounts of fossil fuels. Making the necessary concrete alone would be a large new contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. That means that the initial phase of a nuclear transition would actuallyincrease the rate of fossil fuel emissions. The savings on fuel and emissions wouldn't come until much later.

Second, after the Fukushima disaster, there doesn't seem to be much appetite for such a buildout. I'll be very surprised if nuclear power generation even maintains its current level in the next 20 years as Japan and Germany abandon nuclear power. Third, the timeline for such a buildout would be measured in decades, partly because of the sheer logistics involved and partly because of the brake that regulatory approvals put on such projects. Even new, cheaper and easier-to-build designs may not help if they cannot achieve the necessary regulatory approvals promptly. The history of such approvals is not encouraging. The safest thing a nuclear regulatory agency can do is say no.

I haven't even touched on replacing the fuels which power our transportation system and provide heat for our buildings and industrial processes. Transportation offers an extraordinary challenge since 80 percent of all transportation fuel worldwide is still derived from petroleum. In the United States the number is 93 percent. Despite billions of dollars spent and decades of research, we still have no good substitutes that scale to the size necessary to replace petroleum for transportation fuel.

Biofuels offer little hope. Already the ethanol bubble has burst. Biofuels--today mainly ethanol and biodiesel--compete with food. There is simply not a limitless supply of suitable farmland, and so there will be competition with the demand for food until we find substitutes for the industry's main feedstocks, namely corn, sugar and soybeans. 

Beyond this the problem of scale is simply unsolvable. To supply the entire U.S. car fleet--assuming it could run on ethanol--we'd have to plant 1.8 billion acres in corn for ethanol continuously. There are only about 440 million acres in the United States in cultivation now. And, it's worth noting that current methods of corn cultivation require the copious use of herbicides and pesticides made from oil; tractors and other vehicles that run on oil to plow, harvest and spray the fields as well as transport the crop; and natural gas-derived nitrogen fertilizers to boost growth and replenish depleted soil. Fossil fuels are currently integral to growing corn, and I cannot see the wisdom of growing organic corn for anything but food.

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