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

Emlyn emlynoregan at gmail.com
Fri Nov 27 09:22:43 UTC 2009

2009/11/27 Anders Sandberg <anders at aleph.se>:
> 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.

Well, I'm coming from the assumption that efficiency seems to lead us
to using more resources rather than less.

ie: The Jevons Paradox

>> 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... :-)

I've been thinking a lot about how consumption in the consumer west is
an engine driving the world economy, largely to bad ends at the
moment, and how it's unlikely that engine will stop any time soon. So,
can we put it to use?

>From an article by Stephen Roach in the nytimes, 2007:

"There is hope that young consumers from rapidly growing developing
economies can fill the void left by weakness in American consumers.
Don’t count on it. American consumers spent close to $9.5 trillion
over the last year. Chinese consumers spent around $1 trillion and
Indians spent $650 billion. It is almost mathematically impossible for
China and India to offset a pullback in American consumption."

Consumer spending is trillions of dollars? That sounds useful.

So for instance afforestation is a good approach, but could we do
better with something that consumers might spend their dollars on?

Just one idea: 3D printers which use a biologically derived goop. Pair
them with some kind of device for making that goop out of thin air.
Well, out of thick air; that's the problem we are trying to solve
after all :-)

eg: here's some mention of algae that make plastic:

Is that doable? Could we build simple to maintain and run home algae
farms, that can be converted into 3d feedstock, and then into consumer
goods via 3d printing? If we could do this, you could have a massive
chunk of the consumption engine drive that technology. Turning
sunlight, water and CO2 directly into consumer goods, en masse (really
really masse), might have a pretty serious effect.

Remember the efficiency can be terrible to begin with. We're not
assuming current technology will solve the problem. We just want to
kick start a feedback loop  such that, at some point in the future,
massively more capable technology can solve the problem.

I guess that's a low tech version of the nanotech dream right there.

Also interestingly, consumer technologies rooted in access to sunlight
might make cities look less attractive, and giant world spanning
suburban sprawl look attractive again. Bleh, but hey.

> 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?

Can we have a technology that improves exponentially, without its
improvement being intrinsically tied to information processing
capabilities? It appears to have been directly relevant to the
exponential improvements in the human genome project. How can we tie
clean energy & carbon scrubbing activities directly to information
processing? Or maybe the question to ask is, which such activities are
processing bound? I have a vague idea that some of the possibilities
for fusion require enormous processing capabilities; if only you could
it in your laundry :-)


http://emlyntech.wordpress.com - coding related
http://point7.wordpress.com - ranting
http://emlynoregan.com - main site

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