Richard Rhodes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian whose latest book, Energy: A Human History, has just been published.
Energy transitions take time. Across the past 400 years, as the world has transitioned from wood to coal, to oil, to natural gas and nuclear power, the average transition time from zero to 50-per-cent market penetration has been about 100 years. Enthusiasts who promote the wonders of new energy sources often fail to grasp that hard truth. A new energy source isn’t just a windmill or a solar farm. It’s infrastructure and social learning as well. Both add drag.
Tesla automobile entrepreneur Elon Musk’s determination to produce electric cars on a Detroit scale offers a classic example of the complexities of developing a new energy infrastructure. At the beginning, a new system looks straightforward: Build the machine or tap the source and you’re off and running. But there’s much more to it than that.
A new technology is inevitably crude, the economist W. Brian Arthur points out. “In the early days,” he writes, “it is sufficient that it work at all.” Mr. Musk told his shareholders in 2016 that the early Tesla Roadster “was completely unsafe, broke down all the time and didn’t really work.” After a technology’s first incarnation, Mr. Arthur goes on, “the nascent technology must now be based on proper components, made reliable, improved, scaled up, and applied effectively to different purposes.” All this development takes time.
So does building infrastructure. When Mr. Musk began his quest, batteries large enough to power an automobile were hard to manufacture and prohibitively expensive. (For his Roadster, he used a pack of several thousand laptop batteries.) He had to build a vast battery factory as well as to invent new uses for large batteries (home and grid renewable energy storage) to improve supply and mass-produce down the price.
Even so, current electric car batteries have limited storage capacity, restricting the Tesla’s range. Recharging them is slow. (Turn-of-the-20th-century steam-powered cars, or “steamers,” faced a similar limitation: They needed 20 minutes or more to build up a sufficient head of steam. The solution for the steamer was a pilot light to keep the water hot, not something feasible for electrics.) Unlike gas stations, few commercial battery-charging stations yet exist outside California, further limiting the Tesla’s range. In consequence, California accounts for almost half of Tesla sales, the other half spread thinly among the remaining 49 U.S. states and Canada. Plug-in electric vehicle sales in Canada last year totalled about 18,000 for a national electric fleet total of 47,800 in a country with 24.3 million vehicle registrations.
Electricity – a transfer agent rather than a source – is plentiful, and recharging electrics at home at night actually improves the economics of electricity production, at least from traditional sources. Solar energy isn’t available after sunset, however, nor much in the way of wind. To smooth out delivery of solar and wind electricity requires storing it during daytime peaks, a complicated and expensive challenge. Battery installations on the scale of an entire grid have only begun to be developed. Less expensive, but environmentally challenging, is using excess daytime electricity production to pump water into hilltop storage lakes from which it can be released at night to generate hydropower. Canada’s extensive hydropower resources make solar a better bet than it is in most of the United States.
Nuclear power is a more reliable source of baseload electricity than intermittents, but many consumers are phobic about radioactivity. Nuclear has been burdened with such expensive restrictions that it is actually in decline in the United States. Germany is phasing it out and attempting to replace it with renewable wind and solar while, in the meantime, burning highly polluting brown coal.
Canada has a better record of developing nuclear power, beginning with its early work on natural-uranium reactors moderated and cooled with heavy water. Heavy water – water in which hydrogen is replaced with a rare hydrogen isotope, deuterium, each atom of which carries an extra neutron – is expensive to distill from ordinary “light” water. Canadian hydropower eases that cost. With heavy water, which absorbs fewer neutrons than light water, natural uranium rather than enriched uranium can serve as fuel. That in turn eliminates the extremely expensive step of enriching uranium. Canada operates 18 Candu reactors, all but one of them in Ontario. A number have been sold to countries around the world.
In contrast to the West, East and South Asia currently operate 128 nuclear-power plants. Of 68 reactors under construction worldwide at the start of 2016, 45 were in Asia, as were 39 of the 45 reactors that have been connected to the electricity grid since 2005. China is going nuclear primarily to deal with the choking air pollution of coal burning – familiar from photographs of gloomy Beijing, which look much like London in 1900 or Pittsburgh in 1940. Both India and China have vast coal resources, however, making continued use of coal financially tempting despite that fuel’s short- and long-term pollution hazards. China’s response to this temptation so far has been to sell its coal abroad, effectively voiding the CO2 benefits of its nuclear plant.
The International Atomic Energy Agency predicts that by 2030, nuclear capacity worldwide will grow about 2 per cent in the low case and about 70 per cent in the high case. “The role nuclear power plays in reducing greenhouse gas emissions is getting wider recognition,” the IAEA observed in its 2016 annual report. The agency said nuclear power had “already made a sizable contribution to climate change mitigation by avoiding nearly 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.”
Energy transitions take more time than a world faced with global warming may have. The West has experienced repeated energy transitions across the past four centuries. Coal replaced wood for residential heating in Elizabethan England when firewood, carted to London from greater and greater distances as the trees came down, priced itself out. Pennsylvania petroleum brewed kerosene for lighting when the Civil War blocked Southern shipments of camphene lamp fuel distilled from Carolina pines. Natural gas cleared the urban air of coal smoke beginning in the middle of the 20th century when pipeline technology matured.
In the 1970s, Dr. Cesare Marchetti, an Italian physicist and futurist, and his colleagues at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Austria (IIASA) examined some 3,000 historical examples of energy transitions. They found, in Mr. Marchetti’s words: “The time a new source takes to make inroads into the market is very long indeed, about a hundred years to become dominant starting from scratch.”
In numbers, Mr. Marchetti specifies 100 years from zero market penetration to about 50-per-cent market penetration. That rate remained slow and steady across the entire hundred years of the IIASA study regardless of wars, depressions or changes in energy prices. Mr. Marchetti argues that the adoption of a new energy source involves social learning and diffuses from person to person, much as a disease epidemic does.
The IIASA investigations are not merely interesting in themselves. They are also predictive, and what they predict is the impossibility of any new energy source that had not reached 1-per-cent market penetration by the year 2000 achieving a dominant market share before mid-century. Which sources don’t make the grade? Any of the renewables: wind, solar, biomass, tidal – none of which has reached the 1-per-cent threshold to this day. “This fact,” Mr. Marchetti wrote some 40 years ago, “rules out the possibility of having fusion or solar energy covering a sizable fraction of the energy market before the year 2050 and leaves us with a narrow choice: go nuclear or bust.”
But Mr. Marchetti’s projections from historical data turned out to be more limited than they seemed back in 1977. The Arab oil embargo of the late 1970s froze market shares of all the major energy sources. Rather than coal and wood continuing their historic decline, while oil peaked and natural gas and nuclear power continued upward, each energy source maintained its market share. Coal and oil levelled off, as did natural gas. Nuclear actually declined, dropping to a less than 6-per-cent share in the West since 2000, although new nuclear is burgeoning in Asia.
Former U.S. secretary of energy Steven Chu told me recently that natural gas, newly abundant in the United States from fracking, will continue to supply a major share of energy in the foreseeable future for the U.S. and for export. That abundance is both good and bad news. The good news is that burning natural gas produces much less air pollution and only about 50 per cent as much CO2 as does burning coal. The bad news, of course, is that 50 per cent as much CO2 as coal is far more than renewables or nuclear produce. Yet a major reason nuclear is in decline in the United States is the low cost of natural gas compared to the high cost of building new nuclear plants.
Meeting world energy needs while coping with global warming appeared possible in 1977. Today, managing the two challenges together appears uncertain. And because, unlike in the past 400 years of energy transitions, no new source has even crossed the 1-per-cent line, there is no quick fix. The world today faces the largest of all energy crises historically: limiting global warming while simultaneously providing energy for a world population not only increasing in number (to an estimated level-off of 10 billion by 2100) but also advancing from subsistence to prosperity. And though environmentalists may wish it so, there is no prospect that alternative energy sources can substitute for traditional sources in time.
It’s increasingly clear that the only possible road to a successful transition away from carbon-based energy sources is all of the above: continuing to build out renewables, use nuclear (which has about the same carbon footprint as solar power) for baseload energy and continue to burn natural gas. One of the pressing questions about Canadian nuclear power is what will happen to the Pickering, Ont., plant, which could close as soon as August, after its licence expires. It would certainly seem to this U.S. observer an important contribution to reducing global warming for Canada to maintain its current nuclear power capabilities.
One recent number dramatizes the challenge: In August, 2015, the heat index – temperature and humidity combined – in northern Iran reached 165 F. That’s the temperature of a roasted chicken.