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    It Takes Basic Research, Stupid
    By Hank Campbell | December 1st 2012 12:11 PM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0® and co-author of "Science Left Behind".

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    Hot on the heels of the election, geoscientists are recommending what should be an obvious change of direction for our energy policy; instead of wasting another $72 billion on subsidies for corporations building legacy ineffective green energy technology, the Obama administration should be funding basic research with that money instead. 

    Mark Zoback, a professor of geophysics at Stanford who served on the U.S. Secretary of Energy's Committee on Shale Gas Development, will be on a panel with Jeff Tester, an expert on geothermal energy from Cornell University, and Murray Hitzman from the Colorado School of Mines at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco on December 4th to talk about the future of American energy.

    "One option for transitioning away from our current hydrocarbon-based energy system to non-carbon sources is geothermal energy – from both conventional hydrothermal resources and enhanced geothermal systems," Zoback said in a statement.

    If you think anti-science hippies have a problem with natural gas fracturing and all that cancer and causing the Earth to deflate they claim have resulted, wait until enhanced geothermal gets into their fundraising brochures (and it will - activists have never found any issue first, science always has, and then they raise money worrying about it and telling their base science is out to kill us). Regular geothermal power is passive, geysers or hot springs drive a turbine - it's also pretty useless unless you want 10% efficiency but, inefficient or not, the US leads the world in it, with over 3,000 MW of capacity from nearly 80 power plants. Those geothermal plants are doing what just 3 average nuclear plants can do with much less environmental impact but convection geothermal is natural and renewable and good enough Iceland that can use it for 30% of their power. They don't have a lot of people in Iceland.

    Enhanced geothermal is like natural gas fracking, except for heat contained underground.  They pump water through an injection well with literally enough force to fracture granite and any other hot rocks in the way. Those fractures and the pressure means the water circulates and becomes hot and then another well brings it back to the surface where the steam drives a turbine just like in a regular convection geothermal scheme. The steam cools back into water and is re-injected underground.

    While anti-science energy environmentalists, which is to say all energy environmentalists in the US, love geothermal right now, it's only because they flit from new pipe dream to new pipe dream; these are the same people who also spent the entire 1990s endorsing ethanol and natural gas and killing nuclear power.  In 2005, ethanol finally got what they lobbied for, mandates and subsidies, and only then did they look at the environmental math. They turned on natural gas too and have linked it to every health issue except autism - look for that one soon. Meanwhile, actual carbon-free energy in the form of nuclear power was vilified, which led to our surge in CO2 emissions.

    But until it is actually implemented, environmentalists will embrace claims like that if 2 percent of the hot rocks underground were used for geothermal energy we would have 26X the energy we need.

    However, unlike natural gas fracturing, and an energy that comes out geologically easily, slamming granite hard enough to force water through it is serious stuff.  When activists and legitimately concerned people talk about earthquakes from fracking, they are not talking about the natural gas kind, they are talking about geothermal. In 2005, an enhanced geothermal project in Switzerland was called off after a 3.4 magnitude earthquake was blamed on it.



    Siemens enhanced geothermal system showing (1) Reservoir (2) Pump house (3) Heat exchanger (4) Turbine hall (5) Production well (6) Injection well (7) Hot water dsitribution (8) Porous rock (9) Well (10) Bedrock. Credit: Siemens

    Clearly this needs more basic research, not to have government subsidies thrown at it. They note in their presentation materials that a numerical model that received the best paper award in GEOPHYSICS last year proposed reducing the injection rate of current enhanced geothermal and letting it build over time so that the fractures slip more slowly. It's worth testing but we don't make earthquake-sized decisions based on a grad student's computer models so this will take a lot more study.  And that's exactly what we should be spending money on, not funding companies to build it because of an Anything But Oil belief by an Energy Department head who really should know better, but was hired more for his desire to force people off of gasoline than his energy science credentials, pretty common in the modern scientization of politics culture, which seeks out a reality-based reason for personal belief.

    We have a president who never needs to run for office again so we get to see his real positions now.  Is the real President Obama the guy who greenlighted Keystone XL but then picked environmental protesters over union jobs for political expedience, or was he anti-science and only grudgingly agreed until the protests kicked in? It sounds like both of those are bad but, not really, that is just politics. No one gets to be president embracing science at the cost of political expedience.

    Yet with a legacy to build he gets a chance to cast all that off. He can be the president who put us on a path to clean energy - but it would be by funding research, not products.  Silicon Valley did not come into existence because the government wasted $72 billion on vacuum tube mainframe manufacturers and clean energy will not become efficient by subsidizing current inefficiency. Instead, we need to be funding research of better solutions and letting the meritocracy of science provide a true 21st century breakthrough.

    Comments

    So this site is "science" for tea baggers?

    The quake in Bern. Bad site choice. Near a city which had not been quake-hardened (like CA cites, for example) even though it was in a known earthquake zone.

    Geothermal is producing electricity in the US for ~$0.08/kWh. The lowest estimate I've seen for new nuclear (and this was a number from an industry insider) was $0.12/kWh. And that could only be achieved if taxpayers assume most of the risk for non-completion and meltdown. A more reasonable estimate would be closer to $0.20/kWh.

    Right now there is research ongoing to see if enhanced fracking can be done using CO2 rather than the chemicals used to extract fossil fuels. If that pans out then many of the "hippie worries" will disappear.

    And, finally, this - " anti-science energy environmentalists, which is to say all energy environmentalists in the US" - is just weird. I have never met a single anti-science environmentalist. The anti-science folks tend to dress up in 18th Century costumes, carry flags with snakes on them, and deny that we are screwing the climate. Most of the high quality scientists I know regard themselves as avid environmentalists. They understand the science of what fossil fuels are doing to us and with the problems of nuclear waste and cost.

    But, hey, have a nice day....

    Hank
    In 1972 a writer for the The New Yorker couldn't believe Richard Nixon won his landslide election, because she didn't know anyone who voted for him. Therefore
     I have never met a single anti-science environmentalist
    plus the tired "So this site is "science" for tea baggers?" trope use to deny uncomfortable truths tells us why you can't see any anti-science environmentalists. You are a crackpot too so that is normal.

    If you are done being an idiot, we can talk. Convection geothermal is cheap, I have no issue with that, but unless you have a population the size of Iceland it cannot be meaningful.  One average nuclear plant could power their entire country.  Are you, with your vast expertise of geoscience, declaring enhanced geothermal safe?  Since you get the whole country of the earthquake wrong, despite me listing it in the article, your credibility is suspect.
    This author's editorialization and needless personal invective detract from the credibility of his points.

    You need to become better educated about your subjects before you go on anti-science diatribes. You appear to have a very heavy bias -- toward who knows what. Rants with shallow information don't help anyone. i can steer you to better sources if you wish.

    Hank
    Okay, sure, thanks for enlightening me - there is just one problem. You wrote a whole comment telling me how bias and flawed I was but did not say about what, so I have no idea what better sources you can steer anyone toward. Are you contending convection thermal can be viable today?  That is simple physics, so you are wrong.  That we don't need basic research?  Again, that shows a lack of understanding about what existing technology can do. That spending $72 billion on nothing, in that unique American way we have of believing if we throw enough money at a problem, it will fix itself?  We've been proven wrong time and again, as the War on Cancer and War on Drugs shows.
    MikeCrow
    Living in Ohio, and never wanting to shovel the driveway again led me to see how much it'd cost (~$10,000 to plus repaving costs) to drill geothermal wells to warm water to melt any snow on the drive and sidewalks.
    Never is a long time.
    This site is a good place to start for factual information about the value of the research being undertaken on EGS geothermal systems:

    http://blog.newberrygeothermal.com/

    Brent1178
    It's very difficult to take someone seriously who comes out with statements as ridiculous as  this:
    While anti-science energy environmentalists, which is to say all energy environmentalists in the US,
    It reminds me of that other article you wrote suggesting that Atheists were "unscientific" (what happened to that, I can't seem to find it now, did you remove it?)

    The basic point of this article, that funding research would be better use of your government's money, is perfectly valid, but why all the nonsense labelling anyone who doesn't share your opinions "anti science" and bashing anyone who wants to break away from fossil fuels. Do you really believe that fossil fuels will last forever as you seem to think in http://www.science20.com/science_20/energy_density_why_gasoline_here_stay-91403 ?
    Hank
    I have never once said fossil fuels are here to stay and "as you seem to think" is weasel talk - either you know what I said or you don't, but don't try to imply I might have said something I never said.

    And if you are an anti-science environmentalist, I have no interest in you taking me seriously.  If you are a pro-science environmentalist, on the other hand, you are as baffled as I am about how an entire industry (in America, anyway) has sprung up to generate money promoting hysteria and doubt and fear about science, all the while claiming to love science.

    I also don't bash anyone who wants to break away from fossil fuels, I only bash the people who usual political connections to get underwritten by taxpayers in America, and use that money for public relations campaigns to intimate they are saving the planet.
    Brent1178
    I have never once said fossil fuels are here to stay and "as you seem to think" is weasel talk - either you know what I said or you don't, but don't try to imply I might have said something I never said.
    I do know what you said, you titled your article; "Energy Density- Why  Gasoline is Here to Stay", but one thing we know for certain, is that gasoline is not here to stay no matter how good it's energy density, and neither is any other fossil fuel. Of course if we can cut back dramatically on it's use, it might last a reasonably long time.

    And if you are an anti-science environmentalist, I have no interest in you taking me seriously.
    I'm not an anti-science environmentalist, in fact, I'm not even sure if I can call my self an environmentalist, but I am interested in the problem of how to create an energy future beyond fossil fuels because I believe that peak oil, followed by the other fossil fuels, presents one of the biggest problems of the 21st Century, right up there with population growth (and if you like to stir up emotions, try talking about solutions to that problem).

     Many of the renewable energy options available now work effectively enough  and could be more widely adopted, but are slightly more expensive than the oil/coal/gas options. Some are even cheaper. Personally I think most of them are worth the extra expense. If we don't adapt before there's a problem with the supply of fossil fuels, what will the cost be? Many people believe that peak oil will become a major problem within this decade, but even if it's the next decade it's not a lot of time. How long can we spend researching the best way to solve the problem before it's too late to act? 
    Hank
    Oddly, coming from the business world, I do firmly believe that in the hierarchy of decision-making, there are, in order of awfulness, good decisions, bad decisions and no decisions.

    This confuses more academic people, who believe a bad decision is clearly worse than no decision. These same people are baffled by the Monty Hall paradox no matter how much explaining you do.

    But energy is another matter, for the same reason I do not agree with space exploration zealots who think we should send a ship to Alpha Centauri today.  We could do it, it would be costly and take a long time. But if we do research we can send one in 60 years that will pass the first one en route and be better in every way.

    I am certainly not a 'study things forever' advocate, but basic research is not study.  The 'we must do something now' mentality would have had us trying to optimize whale oil and alcohol if that had been the policy in 1850. Instead, we got petroleum. We wasted $72 billion on alternative energy we already know does not work - and it made no difference at all in emissions.  Instead, natural gas caused our emissions to plummet and they got no government subsidies at all.

    And you need better reading comprehension - at least beyond reading a title. Nowhere in that article whose title you cite do I claim that fossil fuels are unlimited. I instead say current alternatives do not work because...they do not work...and therefore we need to do more basic research while we have the time.

    Brent1178

    But energy is another matter, for the same reason I do not agree with space exploration zealots who think we should send a ship to Alpha Centauri today.  We could do it, it would be costly and take a long time. But if we do research we can send one in 60 years that will pass the first one en route and be better in every way.
    This would make sense if we had another 60 years, but I don't think we have that long. I hope I'm wrong.  If we put off the renewables and instead put our effort into improved ways to extract  fossil fuels (such as fracking for natural gas), isn't that kind of like trying to optimise whale oil and alcohol in 1850?
    And you need better reading comprehension - at least beyond reading a title. Nowhere in that article whose title you cite do I claim that fossil fuels are unlimited.
    I read the whole article quite thoroughly and there is nothing wrong with my comprehension. The claim is in the title. I could argue at length about it's contents, but I came across it too late to contribute.  Anyway I believe the current alternatives are good enough to at least begin to adopt, and the more they're adopted, the more incentive there is to develop them further. So I choose to act now, and I have to say from the point of view of an early adopter that some of those alternatives actually work pretty well.




    Hank
    This would make sense if we had another 60 years, but I don't think we have that long. I hope I'm wrong. If we put off the renewables and instead put our effort into improved ways to extract fossil fuels (such as fracking for natural gas), isn't that kind of like trying to optimise whale oil and alcohol in 1850?
    Well, no, whale oil was already getting scarce then.  What we should not have done is spent $72 billion on jojoba plants and assumed that would work great if we threw enough money at it. 

    We have enough coal to last 500 years.  We could make synthetic oil.  That doesn't mean we should.  But subsidizing bad alternative technology because it exists right now will not fix the problem, it will simply make people jaded and they won't agree to get behind a good alternative energy solution when it arrives. 
    Brent1178
    $72 billion in jojoba oil? really? I hope that's a joke!
    Sure there are bad alternative technologies which get funds wastefully poured into them, such as biofuel from food crops, and there probably will be for as long as such funding is available, because politicians usually can't tell the difference and as long as it's available anyone who can sell an idea will try to profit.  But technologies like geothermal, wind, hydro, solar and tidal power are all capable of producing energy at a reasonable price and while none of them will hold the answer entirely on their own, all of them can and will play a part. 

    I understand that your key grudge is about the way your government has been spending money, and that's fair enough, but that isn't a problem with the technology, it's a political problem.