On energy and climate change
Updated: Nov 19, 2022
These are some thoughts on the existential threat of climate change and the need of our civilisation for enormous amounts of power generation. First, a reminder of the story of Aron Lee Ralston (we have no association with him; his book is called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” or “127 hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place”).
Aron was canyoneering in the Utah desert, when, after an accident, he was trapped. More specifically, his right arm was trapped by a rock. After several days trying to dislodge himself, he was left with two options. Option 1, stay put and die or, option 2, amputate his own arm to free himself and survive.
You can read the rest of the story for yourself; what does this have to do with climate change and energy though? In a nutshell, this is a similar situation humans find themselves now, with climate change and energy.
If not all, at least most of the people reading this note will agree that climate change is real, it is anthropogenic and is an existential threat to humanity. Most will see the need to remove the burning of fossil fuels from anywhere that is done today, including sectors such as power generation and transport. Not doing anything, continuing with the use of fossil fuels is option 1, where extinction for us and many other species is a real possibility.
This wasn't always the case, as the problem relates to scale; fossil fuel burning at the scale it was done in the year 1900, for instance, is not the same problem as in the scale it is done now. This applies to any energy generation method we choose, including renewables. It would be wise to think how whichever energy method we choose scales to supply 2, 10, or 100 times our current energy needs.
A lot will see renewables as the solution to the problem of needing to generate enormous amounts of power to sustain our civilisation while simultaneously reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to zero. It is, hopefully, becoming increasingly apparent, however, that renewables are far from ideal (https://twitter.com/Dr_Keefer/status/1591075724315836420, https://britishrenewables.com/portfolio/shotwick, https://www.power-technology.com/comment/top-tweets-mike-hudema-canada-turning-the-worlds-largest-coal-plant-into-a-solar-farm-the-most-popular-tweet-in-q2-2022/, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-business-40941994).
To anyone reading the reports that are coming out with increasing frequency (e.g. IEA “Mineral requirements for clean energy transitions”, or “Renewable energy production will exacerbate mining threats to biodiversity” in Nature Communications, or McKinsey’s “The raw materials challenge”, IMF’s “Metal Demand from Energy Transition May Top Current Global Supply”), on the environmental toll that a move to a majority-renewables system will entail, this will definitely look like option 2, where we need to amputate ourselves for survival.
Whereas the option 1 analogy will be, probably, rather uncontroversial with the majority, the option 2 analogy will lead to vociferous disagreement by many. This has been, after all, a very polarised debate. To be clear, Fusion Reactors both sees the need and advocates for increased renewables. Fossil fuels need to go, and renewables are a good-enough crutch to help us begin the transition. They are far from ideal, however, and it feels that a series of vast solar arrays for the beginning of a dystopian film such as “Blade Runner 2049” may not be that out of place.
Those of you reading this blog on our website will not be surprised that we believe in option 3, fusion energy. In the analogy with Aron’s story, this would be a successful search party finding him and saving both his life and his arm. This would be a Deus ex machina plot twist that we have learnt from an early age to dismiss as “Hollywood” and not “real life.”
Ironically, we live in the age of miracles. There are so many of them that we have become completely desensitised. We routinely fly from continent to continent without so much as a single thought on what that would look like to someone a mere 150 years ago. One of the greatest scientists of the 19th century, Lord Kelvin, declared (heavier-than-air) flight an impossibility a mere 8 years before Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk. We have doubled our life expectancy, we live in houses with total temperature control, we have water literally on tap, hot and cold, any time of day or night.
Fusion is the next miracle in waiting. It is a lot closer than the Lord Kelvins of our time would let you believe and a lot more necessary than even people working in fusion realise.