Scaling Energy to Dizzying Heights and Quaking Depths

The demonization of carbon capture recently moved into new territory as opponents — who hope to kill coal-fired power by squelching carbon capture — worry over the seismic effects of massive underground CO2 injection. This got me to thinking that it’s time to, yet again, consider the virtues of energy conservation.

Fact is, there are risks inherent in every approach to energizing our future (not least sticking with the status quo). The risks look especially daunting if one imagines single-handedly fixing climate change by immediately scaling up any one of the various low-carbon energy technologies available. Take wind power. Install enough wind turbines and they will measurably alter regional airflow patterns and climate (Keith et al, PNAS 2004):

Large-scale use of wind power can alter local and global climate by extracting kinetic energy and altering turbulent transport in the atmospheric boundary layer. We report climate-model simulations that address the possible climatic impacts of wind power at regional to global scales… We find that very large amounts of wind power can produce nonnegligible climatic change at continental scales.

Covering half the Earth with solar panels would undoubtedly deliver its own evils, starting with a sharp increase in power costs that would set back the developing world’s aspirations for economic improvement.

What’s a planet to do? On the generation side I believe we should allow all low-carbon solutions to flourish. We can do this by putting a price on CO2 through taxes or emissions cap-and-trade systems that make it economically punishing to pollute. A price on CO2 would drive coal burning power plants, for example, to invest in pricey carbon capture equipment, increasing the cost of coal-fired electricity — a development that every renewable energy advocate would cheer. (Or one could simply ban new CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants, as British Columbia did last year.)

At the same time we must take account of the scale of our energy use. If we can now envision installing enough turbines to alter local weather patterns, or injecting enough CO2 underground to stimulate earthquakes, surely we must recognize that innovative energy supply will not rebalance our relationship with the Earth. We must also learn to live and live well with considerably less energy.  

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