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.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.
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
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.