Facing and solving the multiple issues concerning energy is the single most pressing problem that we face as a species. There is a lot of media coverage about energy, alternative energy and global warming, but what has been missing is the knowledge and point of view of scientists, at least in the main stream media. If you have missed the first three interviews, you can see the entire list in my profile.William H.Calvin is a theoretical neurobiologist, Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. I had the good fortune to meet Bill at the Future of Energy conference hosted by the Foundation for the Future several months ago. I have also had the pleasure to read excerpts of his upcoming book “Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change”, a book that could well become a classic as it frames the conversation and offers up a strategy and vision to effectively deal with Climate Change. He is the author of a dozen books, mostly for general readers, about brains and evolution. The latest is A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond .
Bill, thank you for sending me a chapter of your new book: “Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change”. When will it be published?
The book itself will be out in February by the University of Chicago Press. They did my other climate book (A Brain for All Seasons) which won several book awards..
What prompted you to write this book?
The urgency of the situation. I figured that, as a newly emeritus medical school professor who has been following climate science since 1984, I could afford taking the three years to write it. Better that than taking a real climate scientist away from research and teaching time. And I felt that I had the right skill set. A Ph.D. in biophysics makes it easy for me to dig into both the physics and the biology involved. And thanks to talking shop with the neurosurgeons every day for twenty years, I do know something about when you can afford to wait and when decisive action is needed.
Please define ‘Global Fever”?
Some people still think that global warming sounds cozy–but even they will recognize that a prolonged high fever portends dangerous consequences. A fever of two degrees above normal body temperature is very different from having three degrees of fever (in Fahrenheit, that’s at 104). In global warming, while two degrees C of fever above the 1990 temperature is bad, three degrees is terrible–a world full of climate refugees and, as they try to flee droughts and famines, there will be many genocides and wars. Who would lend money or write insurance in such an unpredictable world? The climate models say that we have to stop the annual growth in fossil fuel use by the year 2020 in order to avoid that three degree fate.
I love your phrase “Turning around by 2020”. Please elaborate what that means and why you came up with such a catchy phrase?
It’s meant to replace “stabilizing” emissions–which is particularly misleading terminology, as it implies solving the problem. It only means stopping the annual growth in emissions; we’d continue to make things worse, merely at a constant rate. This is the most minimal of goals, which is why I instead talk of turning around the growth.“Emissions” also tends to frame things badly, blinding you to enhancing sinks for CO2 via forests, phytoplankton, and–if we’re lucky–artificial photosynthesis that mines the CO2 in the air. It’s balancing the sources and sinks that keeps CO2 constant. But you really want to reduce CO2 with net sinking. Even with zero emissions, we won’t have begun fixing the climate problem. Nature takes several hundred years to remove half of the excess CO2, thousands of years to get rid of the rest. We cannot afford to wait for that.
My second goal is Sinking CO2 by 2040. That’s when enhanced sinks cancel out the remaining fossil fuel sources (aviation will need them for some time to come), and we finally start drawing down the atmospheric CO2. Until 2040, our climate problem will continue to get worse. In the decades that follow, we start reversing the desertification, extreme weather, and heat waves. Even if we get our climate back, the Amazon rain forest won’t come back nor will all the species that went extinct in the meantime – likely a third to a half of all species on Earth. Our ecosystems may well become fragile.
My third goal is Climate Restoration by 2080, when we finally get CO2 concentration back down to its 1939 value.
Why the 1939 concentration?
It’s a personal goal: the year that I personally began adding to the CO2 problem. If we keep sinking more CO2 than we add, it might make sense to reduce it to the levels seen in 1750 before fossil fuels became popular. But the problem really goes back 8,000 years, to when our ancestors started clearing forests for agriculture. Losing sinks is just like adding fossil fuels to the air.
The timetable is really 2020? That means that we must truly accelerate efforts on all fronts. What can we do as individuals?
You can’t enjoy the long run unless you do the right things in the short run. We’ve only got a decade to make a big dent in fossil fuel use or deploy new carbon sinks in equivalent numbers. Anything slower means a disaster for today’s students.I don’t think we can advance on all fronts, given our 2020 emergency; we’d be better off spending our money on plug-in hybrids than on new rapid transit, for example. Reforming drivers worldwide takes too long.
A major makeover in a decade requires a lot of people working together, not separately. Individuals cannot do very much, in time for 2020, but they can–and must–persuade politicians to either get moving or retire.
What must the government do? When?
I like Al Gore’s notion of eliminating payroll taxes (social security/medicare, unemployment; they’re the biggest part of withholding for most people) when a carbon fee kicks in to put a price on pollution.
This is really clever social engineering, not mere tax relief. Presently there are few ways to game the system and pay less taxes than your neighbor. But with the C-fee (a better phrase than carbon tax) in place, a more efficient car, better insulation, and car-pooling work like tax credits, not deductions. People love to game the system and the prospects of reducing their total taxes by a third will bring out all sorts of creativity that will reduce carbon emissions. Second, it’s time to delegate substantial rule-making power to expert commissions. For example, the Federal Carbon Board might adjust the C-fee and emission caps, to ensure that national CO2 and smog goals are met, just as the Federal Reserve Board now adjusts the mortgage and credit card interest rates to ensure that inflation and unemployment targets are met. Third, we’ll need a Carbon “Makeover” Commission to mandate more efficient cars, trucks, planes, buildings, appliances, and manufacturing processes. Some of the C-fee money needs to support the development of the longer-term technologies, things that no company can currently undertake while remaining competitive. The commissioners will also need to quickly build demonstration projects such as deep-heat geothermal plants. They will need to make sure that oil and coal companies do not buy up the alternative fuel companies and then sit on their innovative patents until the clock runs out. This makeover opportunity offers the largest, cheapest, and fastest leverage on carbon emissions–which is why Congress cannot be left to deal with it, piece by piece.
It seems to me that your time table makes sense, given the global warming situation. I have always felt that most timetables are woefully inadequate to the point of seeming like proponents have their heads in the sand. Care to comment?
Talking endlessly to buy time – and continue the high profits from oil, coal, and natural gas a little longer – has been the lobbying strategy since 1966, just as it was for the tobacco companies after the Surgeon General’s report in 1964.
All sorts of sensible proposals for C-free energy had their budgets axed by Ronald Reagan in 1982 and the rest of the world pretty much did the same thing. It guaranteed that coal use would soar. Now we’ve run out of time for long-run strategies and we are forced to focus on 2020–not agreeing to do something by then, but accomplishing the turn around by 2020.
Please talk about Geothermal or, as you call it Hot Rock Energy. I find it fascinating and, quite frankly, have not heard much about this source of energy.
It’s because “geothermal” has an image problem rather like electric cars once had. It took the success of a 1997 gasoline-electric hybrid called the Prius to help people think ahead to an all-electric car without defaulting to an image of a golf cart of limited utility, not suitable for the freeways.
Hearing geothermal, we often pop up a mental image of a sulfurous hot spring and wrinkle our nose. Too many people think that geothermal is just piping near-surface hot water around to heat some buildings—say, Idaho’s State Capitol buildings in Boise. This in turn makes you think that geothermal electrical power is a special case, nice for Iceland but not more generally. That, however, is your grandfather’s notion of geothermal, badly out of date. See the report put out by a panel of eighteen experts that MIT assembled in 2006 to evaluate Hot Rock Energy as an industrial-strength solution for C-free electricity. The experts said it could yield a thousand times more than our present overall energy use. How polluting? Close to zero.
The idea is not to find hot water. Instead you drill down until finding hot granite that is dry. Then apply water to make steam. Though the U.S. has been lagging behind, the Hot Dry Rock concept was invented by scientists working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1972. What comes up as dry steam is pumped right back down again as water, via a second well nearby. It forces through cracks in the granite, heats back up, flashes into steam, shoots up the other well to the steam turbine, which spins the electrical generator, which feeds the great electrical grid, which keeps your domestic climate comfortable and your car recharged.
And how do these two wells connect? Such deep rock is already fractured along onion-like sheets, ancient planes of stress from sags and folds. Mineralization has mostly filled those cracks, but high-pressure injection can force water into them, dissolving the glue and opening up passages. When the high pressure is released, many do not reseal. Sometimes the layers shift a little, and the noise from such little earthquakes serves to locate the newly-opened crack. A map of the enhanced fracture zone is built up and, when it is several km across, the second (and sometimes a third) well is drilled into it to harvest the steam.
Gushers and mud eruptions don’t come up out of the granite layers. If a sizeable earthquake fractures the well shaft, nothing happens—you just drill a new well nearby. That makes it much safer than drilling for oil or natural gas—or for storing CO2 where a leak could generate a catastrophic heat wave. There are so many obvious problems with “CO2 Capture and Store” (for example, it requires building 67 percent more coal-fired plants just because of the 40 percent efficiency hit) that I’ve concluded it is just another delaying tactic to continue the fossil fuel status quo for another thirty years.Deep geothermal is drought-proof (both hydro and biofuels could be shut down in the droughts that are forecast). Hot Rock does not involve a perpetual stream of truck traffic as biofuels and fossil fuels do. It is perhaps the least demanding on industry, except for manufacturing enough tall drill rigs. What’s built above ground after the drilling rig leaves is just a simple steam plant. A 100 megawatt plant would be smaller than a two-story parking garage. Operating it is within the competence of all developing countries, unlike nuclear or “clean coal” technologies. We’ve got to keep developing countries from burning their own coal or buying oil, yet still modernize–so we need to either drill them some deep holes or supply them with cheap electricity from nuclear plants in countries that already have them.
What would be the Hot Rock timetable, to get enough to retire the supertankers and coal trains?
What needs to be done to get us going in this direction?There have been various research projects around the world since 1970 that have demonstrated the deep heat mining techniques. Serious power production, however, is only getting started. In France, they are getting near-commercial-sized yields at depths of 4 to 5 km. There are some projects in southern Germany and northern Switzerland. Australia has quite a few proof-of-concept projects limping along on private money.
The only hesitation that I have about Hot Rock Energy for 2020 is that there is simply not enough experience with it yet, compared with the experience of running hundreds of nuclear plants over fifty years time. Even though merely combining two tested techniques, deep drilling/stimulation and steam power plant, there will be beginners’ errors to discover. We must do that quickly.
The capital costs per megawatt-hour are similar to those of a new coal plant. They are mostly drilling costs, which ought to fall with a real market for drilling services. Indeed, until opening up those fractured rocks in the depths with the initial hydraulic injection, you don’t know what size power plant to order for the well head. That might cause private capital to hesitate, suggesting a proper role for government money to do the initial Deep Heat farms and then sell the good ones off to industry.
If I were the 2020 czar, I’d place an order for twenty deep drilling rigs and fund fifty Deep Heat farms in order to find the beginner’s errors and the efficient combinations. We urgently need to know if Hot Rock Energy can be ramped up worldwide to thousands of units. That’s when we can start cancelling orders for more nuclear power plants.
What is your comparative analysis regarding all carbon free energy sources?
Ranking the Major C-free Candidates for turning around emissions growth by 2020
|Ability to expand
|Ups & downs
|Enough by 2020?
|Hot Rock Energy
|Just another well?
|Year of small EQs?
|noise, bird kills
|fickle & unstable grid
|compete with food
|not C- neutral
|Coal but capture the CO2
|67% more coal
|fleet of ships
|Compressed air car
|easy to fail
Not comprehensive. Opinionated. Likely outdated. Look for updates at Global-Fever.org.
What do you think about nuclear energy? Is it safe? How can it be utilized to reach your timeline goals?
Nuclear power generation is currently the major C-free energy source. It is over fifty years old, with an excellent safety record. It’s hundreds of times safer than hydro (dams fail) and thousands of times safer than fossil fuels. Unlike the other expandable C-free sources, most of the beginner’s mistakes have already been made. It took three decades before the efficiency doubled.
France has switched to nuclear for 78 percent of its electricity. Hydro gives France another 13 percent. So France is 91 percent clean, 9 percent dirty—and Texas is the exact opposite. Texans now get 91 percent of their electricity from fossil fuels, almost twice the national average. Switzerland is 1 percent dirty and the U.S. is at 60 percent (electricity only; about 85 percent dirty counting transportation energy needs too).
If France and Switzerland switched their vehicles over to electrical power, they would serve as even better C-free energy models for the world. Much as I admire Denmark’s style of distributed cogeneration and the move to renewable wind and solar energy, there simply isn’t time to scale that up around the world before 2020, given how many coal trains and oil tankers need to be retired.
Too much of the present discussion on climate protection is either pie-in-the-sky or envisages a slow evolution of urban architecture, commuting, energy, and civic virtue. We once had time for such planning. We can still explore on many fronts at once but for 2020 we need to be quickly building something foolproof. For the heavy lifting, that looks like Hot Rock geothermal and third-generation nuclear plants. 12. Any final thoughts or comments?
Even though China now emits more CO2 annually, the U.S. has contributed more, over the years, to the insulating blanket of fossil carbon than any other country (30 percent), yet still resists even baby steps toward energy reform. The rest of the world sees the U.S. as the 500-pound gorilla. (The other gorillas won’t go very far down a path until the big guy finally gets up and comes along.) A colleague of mine came back from an international meeting of climate scientists having overheard someone say that, since he didn’t live in the U.S., he felt impotent to deflect the world from the road to catastrophe.
I’ve emphasized a quick technofix because the window of opportunity is closing on us and we’ve only got one planet to lose. Time is short. And because of starting late, we must get this right on the first try or we may be trapped in a runaway.
That’s where we lose existing sinks for CO2 via baking the soil, closing the leaf pores, drought, fire, and ocean acidification. Some carbon sink regions turn into net sources, as when wood decay emits more CO2 than the remaining trees can recapture. We already see that in the tropical rain forests during an El Niño. That pushes up the fever and further accelerates the decay in topsoils, which add more CO2. This accelerates the temperature spike. Like the squeal of a public address system when the speakers are heard by the microphone, it just keeps building up, bringing most activities to a shrieking halt.
Climate change is a challenge to the scientists but I suspect that the political leadership has the harder task, given how difficult it is to make people aware of what must be done and get them moving in time. It’s going to be like herding stray cats, and the political leaders who can do it will be remembered as the same kind of geniuses who pulled off the American Revolution.