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January 16, 2009

Dept. of Unintended Consequences

Over at Grist, Sean Casten observes that many innovations which seem like perfect solutions at a small scale often bring massive unintended and damaging consequences at a large scale. He uses some nifty examples from the past to illustrate his point. My favorite item, though, is the fact that, at its introduction a century ago, the automobile was hailed as a miraculous, trouble-free solution to the reigning urban pollution crisis of the day - fetid air and streets full of animal "byproducts." No one at the time imagined that hundreds of millions of cars worldwide might ever exist, much less one day create pollution problems of their own.

Casten goes on to list the likely but unintended consequences of scaling up the alternative energy technologies required for our transformation to a low-carbon economy.
  1. The solar industry depends on massive volumes of silicon, which must be mined from quartz and purified of its oxygen with a healthy dose of coal and/or charcoal. Do we comprehend the increased size of quartz mines and (char)coal use to meet a solar-dependent grid?

  2. Any central power generation technology requires prodigious amounts of copper in the wires, which must be mined and purified, often with significant acid leaching.

  3. Any battery-intensive future -- whether for automotive or electricity storage -- is implicitly a world that puts us homo sapiens in much closer contact with large concentrations of heavy metals, from lead to cadmium or lighter metals like lithium.

  4. Fuel cells require large volumes of rare earth metals (platinum, rhodium, etc.) that tend to be concentrated in parts of the globe not always known for political pleasantry.
Efficiency, unsexy but powerful - you know, like Dick Cheney - holds the key. We need to squeeze every last joule out of our power and waste energy sources without relying on a 1 for 1 replacement of dirty power with "clean" power. We can't just scale up alternative energy sources to the same level as our fossil fuel-based system - we need to scale down our power demands, too. The good news is that Dr. Secretary Stephen Chu (or is it Secretary Dr.?) at the DOE is a big efficiency fan.

The even gooder news is that a slew of old, highly efficient technologies that had been washed away by the 20th century flood of cheap oil are reappearing as the floodwaters recede. greentechmedia offers a fun list for those keeping score at home. To some extent, the list simply confirms the fact that many of the technologies central to our low-carbon future have actually been around for upwards of a century. Things like geothermal cooling, solar thermal water heaters, gas plasma lighting, zinc batteries, biodiesel and even electric cars are all in that category. Tidal power, meanwhile, goes back a nifty 900 years. But there are also old and, in some cases, ancient technologies like "swirly water" - which involves using vortexes to purify water, dung "gasification" and ambient cooling systems that are just now being "rediscovered" as having commercial-scale potential.

But the fact remains, whether we're traveling back to the future or in, through and beyond, we're going to have to focus on doing more with less power. Anything else is a waste.

Photo courtesy the US National Archives

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