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John Chuckman

COMMENT POSTED TO AN ARTICLE IN THE GUARDIAN

“Keep it in the ground” is a modern Luddite expression. We don’t need slogans. We need intelligent scientific work and patience.

In twenty years or so, the way technology is going, we will be greatly off-oil, even with no special efforts.

But pushing premature efforts is just religion and may prove dangerous.

Windmills, for example, in many applications, are a poor source of electricity, but they have been pushed on people in many countries in large numbers because they are vaguely understood as being “green.” But costly and rather unreliable electricity cannot be green, rightly conceived. Costliness and unreliability are waste, and waste is never green, and it deprives us of our ability to supply other needs.

Windmills cannot supply base-load electricity (that capacity which allows you to turn on the lights anytime in 24 hours), and they are horribly expensive over their useful life expectancy. Maintenance is costly, as for example each time some minor matter goes wrong, you must get a specialized truck that reaches very high up in a remote place just to service one unit.

They also have been demonstrated as not standing up well in extreme conditions of cold and wind. And because you require base-load power, you still need conventional generators to back up windmills, no matter how many of them you have. So they require redundancy automatically, if you will. That also is not green, rightly conceived. I’m all for experimenting with them, but just rushing out to throw up thousands of them, as some jurisdictions have done, seems foolish.

Solar is showing new promise, but we are not there yet for most applications. I think we are getting close to being able to have a practical roofing or siding material for houses, a great concept, which will greatly reduce demands on the grid, with all the reductions in infrastructure that implies.

Storage batteries for homes, another great idea, are coming along, and I suspect will be quite important in not too many years. They too will remove demand on the grid as well as reducing waste.

If electric cars are to come into their own, we need a different way of distributing and/or storing electricity on a widespread scale. We do not have that yet.

As to the matter of global warming, I think caution is extremely wise.

Only recently, a very able mathematician discovered a couple of serious mathematical errors in the world’s main climate model. The errors make carbon dioxide seem far more important in warming than it is without the errors, thus greatly exaggerating its role in climate. The results seem dramatic but will need to be confirmed.

Now, if we run off and spend countless billions on a threat which may not indeed be quite such a threat, we will deliberately impoverish our societies, robbing our children. That too is not green.

Climate change has been happening for 4.5 billion years. It is actually a part of our evolution.

I don’t in the least doubt that climate change is occurring, but I rather doubt we are responsible for it, and I doubt even more that we can seriously alter it with deliberate plans of global scope. Such schemes resemble too much the old Soviet grand engineering schemes of the 1960s for altering rainfall in a region or for altering the course of vast rivers. Global engineering is potentially quite dangerous.

When you talk about a great and immensely complex thing like the earth, I think it more than a little foolish to pretend that we really do understand it enough to be playing with its mechanisms and fine-tuning this or that. It is as complex as the human brain, an organ we understand only in fairly rudimentary fashion even today, and with which our best medical people have made many errors over decades.

Further, we are entering a solar-minimum period over the next decade or so, and this will undoubtedly make things colder for a while. It might actually prove a useful offset to a general tendency to warming as we continue developing our approaches to energy. Again, show some patience and let our brightest creators do their work. Let’s have no slogans and no crash programs we will almost certainly regret.

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