I Could Dunk If I Were Taller

Clean energy potential abounds. Man yet to bite dog.

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Here are a few headlines about a recent International Energy Agency report from large national publications:

Well, gosh. That sounds promising. Here’s one more headline, on a similar topic:

Whew! Sounding better and better. Except that the last headline was from a blog post I wrote a decade ago. Back then, there were zero offshore wind farms operating in the United States. How did all that massive potential get put to use in the years since? Now there is one (1) operating offshore wind farm in the U.S., with around the same electricity-generating capacity as a few vigorous spin classes. Give or take.

The newer report, from the IEA, follows in a long tradition in which government agencies and industry groups tout the potential of various clean technologies, but inadvertently just end up offering up a healthy dose of shame as we continually fail to exploit that potential.

The reports often tiptoe around acknowledging those failures. “Yet today's offshore wind market doesn't even come close to tapping the full potential,” the IEA writes. If we tapped all the offshore wind power available to us, they add, we could produce 18 times what the world currently needs.

Great! What the hell do we do with that knowledge? Many outlets that cover these sorts of reports discuss the raw numbers as if they are at least semi-realistic—like with those headlines up there. Do you get the impression, at least from the start, that the odds of us approaching that sort of goal are laughably out of reach?

I don’t mean that in a technical sense; sure, we could build a shitload of offshore wind. But as with everything climate-related, the issue is somewhat time-sensitive. If offshore wind was going to save us from catastrophe, we needed to do the Manhattan Project-style thing back after those other reports, the ones from a decade or two (or three or four) ago that said the same thing the new reports say. But we didn’t. And there’s no particular indication we’ll do it this time either.

This is no fun to do, but here are some other “save the world” renewable technologies that have not yet, uh, saved the world.

  • “Canada’s in-place geothermal power exceeds one million times Canada’s current electrical consumption.” Only 100 individual geothermal plants would be roughly enough for the whole country, said a report from 2011. As of earlier this year, one (1) geothermal plant is planned for the country.

  • It was estimated that the U.K. could get 75 percent of all the electricity it needs from ocean-based wave power. For the U.S., the technical potential is around one-quarter of the total required. So far, both countries are getting approximately zero electricity from wave power.

  • Cover four percent of the world’s deserts in solar panels, and you power the entire world. The Desertec Foundation spent a decade or so promising it would do essentially that, planning a massive solar power build-out in the northern Sahara. They eventually scaled back their ambitions a tad; today there are a few large solar plants in the desert, but not remotely on the planet-saving scale.

  • Studies of high-altitude wind power potential (essentially, we would fly some big-ass kites that harvest the energy in winds that blow harder up high) found that it is essentially unlimited. One from 2012 found a potential of around 380 terawatts, which is many times the world’s total needs. Since then, we’ve essentially built none.

Some of this isn’t particularly shocking, really. High-altitude wind power, wave power—these things are complicated, and the odds of us ever taking advantage of the power-the-whole-world sorts of potential were slim to begin with. And the simpler tech, the ones we’ve been working with for many decades at this point, sometimes do come close to measuring up to the lofty goals all these reports tend to set.

A 2010 prediction from a solar energy industry group predicted 980 gigawatts of solar power installed by 2020. If you ask the IEA, the world might reach that level by 2022. Not bad!

My quibble here has more to do with the way the Big Potential reports are discussed than with the lack of physical progress in certain arenas (though, obviously, that part sucks). One of the issues that has stymied a true renewable energy revolution is that too few people understand the “how” of it all. Those wind turbines need to exist, physically, in a certain space, and be paid for with actual dollars that need to come from somewhere, like I don’t know maybe putting a price on carbon and also litigating ExxonMobil into the fucking ground and then we all get a turn diving through its money like Scrooge McDuck before we use it to build a billion solar panels.

Instead, we collectively have this tendency to gawk at big numbers—this could power all of the US or China or Germany, that could replace every coal plant in existence, and so on. We do the same thing with theoretical game-changers, tech that literally doesn’t exist in a form that is useful on reasonable time scales but repeatedly gets written up by credible outlets and writers (including me, sometimes!) as if we are on the doorstep of some massive breakthrough.

Sticking with the more practical predictions might be a worthwhile approach. With that latest IEA wind power report, it actually did come with some dollar values. Funding for the global wind energy industry needs to jump from $840 billion up to $1.2 trillion in the relatively near term, or a growth rate of 4.4 percent instead of the current 2.2 percent. That sounds… sort of doable? Maybe? If governments took their collective thumbs out of their butts and moved some of the many, many billions still subsidizing fossil fuels over to the tech where the world doesn’t die?

(Quick aside: I love that this most recent International Monetary Fund report is simply titled “Global Fossil Fuel Subsidies Remain Large,” as if 6.3 percent of the entire world’s GDP was like the size of a St. Bernard or something.)

Building out incredible amounts of clean energy is the most obviously urgent project humans have ever faced. It has been well established that the energy is available to us—that the wind blows enough and the sun shines enough and that the technology we have at hand is capable of harnessing that and turning it into the couple of kilowatt-hours you might need to charge up a sex toy or whatever. We know about the potential. We suck at living up to it.

Hey guess what, something about environmental regulation happened that was bad and made me mad. Weird.

The EPA will essentially make it so they can’t use any science in making their scientific decisions. Fun, right?

More specifically, they demand that all data behind any scientific conclusions be disclosed before it can be included in rule-making—including personal medical records, among other things. It is a simple, obvious ploy to make regulating air and water harder. It is bullshit and bad and you should hate it, and my god it would be amazing to have an Environmental Protection Agency that someday once again seemed inclined to occasionally try to protect the environment.

random bits

  • California and Australia are on fire. Venice and England are under water. Things are going great.


  • NASA renamed a very distant object after the Powhatan/Algonquian word for “sky,” which is nice, especially when you ignore the “REname” part, because the first name was used by the predecessor of the Nazis to mean the mythical homeland of the Aryan race. So.

notes from [gestures around]

I took a few weeks off there, so I missed the chance to write about meeting a CERN physicist in Cambodia, among other things. But here in New Zealand, the country is in upheaval thanks to some election shenanigans. That’s right, the Bird of the Year contest ended recently, and oh man does this place get into that shit!

The hoiho, or the yellow-eyed penguin, won the vote. It is known to be an “anti-social bird,” that screams when it mates, or just when it feels like it. Like so:

But not everyone here thinks that ol’ screamy asshole up there actually won. That’s right: we have some Russian election meddling.

Well okay, probably not, but enough people are claiming so that the Guardian had to write a story about it, and even the Washington Post had to write a “no evidence” story to refute the idea. This isn’t even the first time the Bird of the Year has had to deal with some voter fraud: last year, 300 fraudulent votes were cast from Australia by people rigging it in favor of the shag.

Anyway, hello from a country where everything is not terrible.

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