Tuesday, March 17, 2009

When Tom Friedman Begins Raving about the Next Really Cool Thing

Okay, this is it, for what it’s worth.

Thomas L. Friedman is good at spotting megatrends just before they peak and pushing them with every other column and best-selling books. Just look at the war of choice in Iraq, the global economy… hmm. Well, now it’s climate change and energy future, and it’s laser-powered fusion as the silver bullet that kills the beast. Now this may or may not be true. The problem is, Friedman does an awful job of addressing the issue. Let me explain:

Friedman’s point is this: Existing renewable energy technology, such as solar, geothermal and wind power, is fine, but we’re going to keep using coal anyway, so unless we find a “game-changer”, climate change is “going to have its way with us” (whatever that means). I note that there are two important things missing from this story: carbon sequestering, and energy efficiency and conservation—more broadly, changes in the way we consume energy*. But carbon sequestering is… not sexy? And why complicate the story with inconveniences like lifestyle changes and transportation modes, right? And yes, nuclear fission technology—the conventional nuclear energy that we already use extensively—is messy, but why dismiss it altogether? Moreover, he fails to talk about the other two fossil fuels. (Oil and gas contain carbon too, and one of them feeds America’s insatiable appetite for gasoline.) But I’ll leave these discussions aside for the moment.

Now, first paragraph:
If you hang around the renewable-energy business for long, you’ll hear a lot of tall tales. You’ll hear about someone who’s invented a process to convert coal into vegetable oil in his garage and someone else who has a duck in his basement that paddles a wheel, blows up a balloon, turns a turbine and creates enough electricity to power his doghouse.
I think he made them up. I say this partly because I’ve seen in the past that he’s not above using special effects to enhance the facts in the service of his narrative. But also because the stories don’t make sense. Now somebody may actually have claimed to have invented a process to convert coal into vegetable oil, since…since in one sense it can be done. Coal can be liquefied and gasified to produce anything from heavy oils to gasoline to the lightest hydrocarbon gases. It’s called coal chemistry, a body of organic chemistry first widely used by Nazi Germany and later adopted most notably by Communist China and apartheid South Africa, two states that had serious national security issues regarding oil but were blessed with coal deposits. It is no doubt only a few more steps of organic chemistry to get from there to vegetable oil. But it won’t, of course, be vegetable oil, even if a vial of the stuff matched, say, a vial of palm oil in composition molecule for molecule. That would be the chemical equivalent of a vegetable oil but not “vegetable oil”, analogous to the way that an American wine made from the same grapes as burgundy wine cannot be the latter. Friedman is probably using “vegetable oil” in the sense of renewable energy. But this makes even less sense, because turning coal into the chemical equivalent of vegetable oil (to run diesel engines presumably, although why process it any further if diesel oil will be the inevitable intermediate product?) does not make it a renewable source of energy. In short, I believe that he made up this ill-fitting story from some vaguely remembered factoids. Which makes the other, more outlandish—if contextually more appropriate—story suspect as well. It comes with a Rube Goldberg-like engineering improbability that only a caricature or DIY joke could have.

So much for the two stories, one meaningless, the other suspect. Now to the nucleus of his story:
What if a laser-powered fusion energy power plant that would have all the reliability of coal, without the carbon dioxide, all the cleanliness of wind and solar, without having to worry about the sun not shining or the wind not blowing, and all the scale of nuclear, without all the waste, was indeed just 10 years away or less? That would be a holy cow game-changer.

Are we there?

That is the tantalizing question I was left with after visiting the recently completed National Ignition Facility, or N.I.F., at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
This is a pattern that we have become familiar with over the years. Friedman visits a call center, a laboratory, or an industrial park (actually I sorta made the last one up, but I’m pretty sure he did so why bother fact-checking?) interviews the visionary proprietor of the facilities and then is seen bubbling with unqualified enthusiasm. And I say unqualified here as well, because he goes on to tell us in effect that we’ll be helpless in the face of climate change unless we get this technological fix. That’s betting a lot of future on something that hasn’t happened yet and nobody knows if it ever will. I mean, you have to be pretty hyped up on the technology to be so upbeat. But achieving energy gain, or what he very loosely explains as “produc[ing] more energy from the pellets than the laser energy that is injected”, is only the beginning. Extending that nanosecond or less of net output long enough so that meaningful amounts of energy can be extracted for use is going to take technological advances that can only be imagined, and only in terms of many decades, not years, if ever. (Or so I remember from my work on climate change in the 1990s.) It’s a long shot, and it’s a long ways off.

It’s not as if Friedman ignores the near-term—and here I’m reckoning by Galapagos Tortoise years:
President Obama’s stimulus package has given a terrific boost to renewable energy. It will pay lasting benefits. And we need to keep working on all forms of solar, geothermal and wind power. They work. And the more they get deployed, the more their costs will go down.
Now that’s true. Up to a point. But beyond the inherent limits imposed by the physical nature of solar and wind energy, there’s only so much improvement that you can hope for with regard to heat exchange technology (in the case of geothermal power) or mechanical engineering and aeronautics (in the case of wind power). In the case of geothermal technology, many of the easiest sources have already been exploited—Iceland, the Philippines, even Japan—so costs could easily go up with deployment. These points are trivial to his main argument, since he thinks that they are not enough. But is a good example of his carelessness with the facts, something that I find distressing in works of journalism, since I can’t expect myself to already know something about everything I read. How can I trust someone about something I don’t know when I can’t trust him about something I do?

Back to the main argument. If, as Friedman says, solar, geothermal and wind are not enough and if nuclear fusion, as I claim, is a long-shot and a very long-term one at that, are we doomed? No, not if the three of the four things that I mentioned near the beginning come through. They come with their own issues, but they’re certainly more plausible than nuclear fusion. So, it is irresponsible and misleading of him to dismiss one as messy and ignore the other two altogether out of ignorance or possibly to play up his nuclear fusion epiphany. Friedman may not be an engineer or scientist, but he’s an advocate on energy and climate change issues and a well-known one at that, so I can’t cut him too much slack here.

So that’s it, I think. Martin Frid will correct me if I’m wrong.

* Here, I am using the word “consume” in a broad sense, to include energy use in the production of goods and services including energy itself.


Jan Moren said...

Your mistake, I think, is to view him as a journalist when he is nothing of the sort. He is an essayist, a short-form story writer - think Dave Barry without the laughs - and his ideas should be evaluated in that context.

Michael Reimer said...

"just 10 years away" is a phrase that has haunted my field (AI) for its entire history, and now is usually only uttered satirically. So I can't help but cackle and agree that it's naive in this context too.

MTC said...


For a sobering examination of the limits of renewables, from a fervent advocate of research into renewable energy, check out the presentations of Caltech chemist Nathan Lewis at:


Jun Okumura said...

Janne: But Dave Barry makes a distinction between fact and fiction—you know, “I am not making this up”?

Michael: I first came across that phenomenon with regard to deep-sea manganese nodules when I was briefly doing UN Law of the Seas negotiations between 1979-1980. I believe that the latest estimates at the time put the beginning of commercial production at the end of the 1980s…

MTC: Thanks. I note that Lewis cites a more sensible Friedman op-ed on the need for change in America (though “energy independence”—understandable from the historical context and an advocate’s perspective—is misleading as an objective).

Jun Okumura said...

Make that "between 1978-79".

Anonymous said...

Okumura-san, I think you are really reading way too much into Friedman's first paragraph. Those are clearly apocryphal stories, ones met to set up the article which follows. "Hey folks, there are a lot of wild and crazy stories out there, and this sounds like just another one of them, but read on anyway." I don't mean to sound rude, but it seems you really missed the point, certainly that one throwaway paragraph was not worth all the work you spent on trying to "debunk" it.

Now, as to the "why coal and no mention of gas and oil?" issue: the technology he is talking about is designed to generate electricity. In the US, electrical powerplants are basically nuclear fission, hydroelectric or coal-fired. Now, with pretty much every river that can be dammed to produce hydroelectric power already dammed (and thus no real room for growth in that area), and a lot of grassroots opposition to building more nuclear fission plants, all that is left is to build more coal-fired plants or find something new that can replace coal-fired plants and not involve fuel having names ending in "-nium". The article is limited to this question.

America's thirst for gasoline is of course a big issue, but one that easily ends up back at the electrical powergrid issue. If you want to replace petroleum-powered vehicles, as of now there are two main options: hydrogen fuel or electric power. And actually, these boil down to one option, as you need a lot of electricity to break the hydrogen out of water. No matter which way you go in terms of powering America's cars, you end up at the same point: you need plentiful, cheap electricity. More mass transit to reduce the dependence on cars and cut carbon emissions? Great idea. And this will be powered by...? Electricity. Hence the article's sole emphasis on electrical powerplants to feed into a powergrid.

Or at least, that's my take. FWIW, YMMV, etc.

Jun Okumura said...

LB: First of all, thank you for your long, thoughtful comment. Let’s see if I can do justice to them.

The first point is pretty obvious, and has little to do with my point, which is that this is symptomatic of Friedman’s general tendency to play around with the facts to suit his narrative. Here, he is so sloppy that he doesn’t even make up a story that fits the context.

As for the electricity angle, first note that natural gas rivals hydropower as a primary source for U.S. electricity utilities. Now you cite the NIMBY effect as an effective deterrent to fission plants. Maybe so, at least for now, but how about ten, twenty, thirty years down the line? Is taking another look at fission technology (you’re already seeing it happen in the U.S. as well) any more unrealistic than to keep burning more coal and hoping that fusion power will turn up green in another, twenty, thirty, fifty years? In any case, Friedman is not making even that argument. In fact, I’m not sure that he realizes that he is making in effect an electricity argument. That could be why he fails to mention carbon sequestering; likewise, the perfectly true point that you raise (it is surprisingly often ignored by electric-car advocates) with regard to gasoline. Could you be reading more into Friedman’s essay than it actually says? Remember, I was criticizing Friedman’s essay, not your defense of it.

Finally, Friedman says we can’t cope with climate change unless we have laser-fired fusion. But we are (at least I am) talking about a really long term solution when we refer to fusion. In that context, today’s NIMBY is not really a valid argument, and ignoring carbon sequestering and social change does not make sense—even if we restrict the argument to electricity.