[ExI] Some thoughts on the ecopocalypse - the argument for domestic ground based solar.

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Thu Nov 26 23:42:38 UTC 2009

Emlyn wrote:  
> I'm making the following, I think reasonable, assumptions:  
> 1 - Global warming is real  
> 2 - Global warming is anthropogenic  
> I'm pretty sure we can't use less energy.   
One can quibble with the energy saving part, but I think it is a   
conservative assumption. OECD energy consumption per capita has remained   
roughly constant over the last decades despite significant GDP growth -   
we are doing far more with less. But there are obvious limits here.  
> So the answer is, we need technologies that don't yet exist, on a  
> massive scale, in a pretty short timeframe for such sized projects (a  
> few decades).  
Yes. And this is the part where policy has not yet caught on. Most of   
the debate has been about emission reduction through rather low-tech   
means, likely because 1) some of the groups involved are rather   
anti-tech and anti-consumerism, 2) the reductions use almost known   
methods and no dreaded techno-fixes. Considering that CO2 has a typical   
staying time in the atmosphere of a century, even an instant end to   
emissions might still cause serious trouble if you are pessimistic about   
the forcings and feedbacks.  
At a public lecture this summer the speaker before me proclaimed his   
green credentials by claiming that we must reduce carbon emissions by   
80%. I instead argued that we ought to aim for a 150% reduction - we   
need large scale carbon negative activities. I proposed genetically   
modified afforestation. Ah, the sound of brains popping... :-)  
In any case, if decisionmakers were truly rational about doing something   
about climate they would spend significantly more money on new energy   
sources. There is a whole bunch of infrastructure improvements that can   
be done cheaply (like insulating British houses), but to actually solve   
the problem something entirely new is needed.  
> My bet is on the small distributed approaches, mostly I'm thinking  
> solar. If you can it to a point where everyone desires their own solar  
> power panels, at the domestic and small business level, you have the  
> giant weight of consumer capital pressing on the area, which means 1  
> is taken care of. 3 is already good in this scenario, because this is  
> consumer product stuff.  
Only good if you have a lot of solar around. Sweden and Britain are not   
known for their sunshine.  
I really recommend MacKay's "Sustainable Energy without the hot air"   
(full text at http://www.withouthotair.com/ ) It is a very good   
walkthrough of how to make estimates of energy needs and production,   
checking the realism of various claims and sketching possible energy   
scenarios. Not all perfect (his argument against my above afforestation   
plan is frankly stupid) but a very stimulating start for serious   
thinking (and lots of fun facts to throw at people).  
I think your approach is good though. Look for technologies that can   
emerge rapidly and be widely distributed. Low thresholds for entry, easy   
scalability. Also, distributed energy production is great for security.  
The big question is economies of scale. For solar, MacKay points out   
that individual photovoltaic pannels are unlikly to become efficient   
enough to be really effective in small scale. Solar farms look much   
better. Similarly, being able to store energy and distribute energy   
efficiently seems to have great economies of scale, making the solar   
sheets inefficient compared to current systems.  
So what we want is a technology that has low thresholds to entry, can   
adapt itself fast due to competition, yet fits in with scale-ups. I   
wonder if pebble-bed reactors could do it?  

Anders Sandberg,
Future of Humanity Institute
Philosophy Faculty of Oxford University 
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