Get ready for a massive renewable energy boom


Renewables will be the fastest growing source of energy between now and 2040, according to new projections from the Energy Information Administration.

The EIA forecasts that from 2012 to 2040, solar, wind, and geothermal production will nearly double, rising 97 percent. The next closest projection is for natural gas, which is expected to grow 56 percent.

Of course, renewables make up a small proportion of global power generation. So even after all that growth, renewables are estimated to account for a measly 3.8 percent of total energy production in 2040, compared with 38 percent for natural gas.

But this is actually an extremely conservative estimate. Renewables — and especially solar — aren’t really like other energy sources. Non-renewables are energy-rich fuels, but there is only a finite supply in the ground. This means that prices are unpredictable and subject to large spikes that badly damage the economy, as occurred in the 1970s and the 2000s.

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Is Global Warming a Blessing in Disguise?

This is highly speculative analysis, but looking at the most recent climate data, I can’t help but think that this is more evidence that anthropogenic global warming is averting an ice age:

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There can be no doubt that in recent years that there has been a large uptick in temperature, probably related to the sharp uptick in carbon dioxide levels. Temperatures have returned to levels last seen during the peak of the most recent interglacial period, 6,000 to 8,000 years ago Analysis by climate scientists has tended to focus on the disruptive effects that this may have — sea level rise, glacier loss, drought, etc.  What’s striking about the extended timeframe data, however, is the gradual downward slope over the last 6000 years — the Earth’s climate was changing in the opposite direction when humans began offsetting this by burning fossil fuels. It does not seem unreasonable, given the evidence of a longer-term glaciation cycle, that had humans not started to emit massive quantities of greenhouse gases, that the cooling trend would have continued. Burning fossil fuels seems to have had a powerful countercylical effect.

Falling temperatures and increased glaciation may have made it very difficult for human civilisation to continue to progress. The fossil record suggests humanity has existed in various forms for four million years, and there is evidence that non-anthropogenic climate change — including glaciation — has been a disruptive force in the past. So it seems increasingly likely to me that the countercylical climactic effects of the industrial revolution may have been supportive to the continued existence of human civilisation. Furthermore, had the anthropogenic emissions occurred at a different time — say, during a time of cyclical warming — the probability of catastrophic effects may have been much higher, because the effects would have been cumulative. That doesn’t mean that the current trend may not have catastrophic effects in the long run, especially if emissions and greenhouse gas levels continue to grow.

I look forward to decreasing reliance on fossil fuels, and decreased carbon emissions. As solar power and nuclear power (etc) become cheaper and more efficient (inevitably eclipsing fossil fuels, whose extractable quantities are naturally limited) carbon emissions should gradually decrease. Given that we have already experienced significant countercylical warming, that is probably a good thing. Indeed, we may have gone too far already, and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (perhaps even to pre-industrial levels) may be necessary. But given the pre-existing trend of falling temperatures, we must take seriously the possibility that anthropogenic global warming has averted big problems.

The Shape of Global Parasitism

A couple of days ago Buttonwood over at The Economist touched on my favourite topics: the growth of the Western service industry, the death of Western manufacturing, and the deep interconnectedness of the global economic system. His hook was that most claims of parasitism are at best not-straightforward, and at worst are unfounded. From The Economist:

Are all manufactured goods intrinsically superior to services? Would you rather have a wig or a haircut? Just as there is only so much food we can healthily consume, there is only so much physical stuff we need. We have service-dominated economies because people like to consume services from TV programmes through video games to leisure activities like eating out. When General Motors sells a car, the chances are that it is selling it to someone who works in the services sector; so who is the parasite in this situation?

At the national level, we can say that most countries cannot produce all the things they need (or at least desire). Britain, for example, needs food from abroad. So it needs industries that can export stuff in order to generate the earnings that pay for imports. Here the bankers start to look a lot more valuable; Britain’s invisible earnings from financial services are highly valuable.

A more realistic question might be “would I rather have a factory making hair clippers, or a cabal of lawyers, financiers and bureaucrats who readily declare themselves too-big-to-fail and hose themselves down in taxpayers’ liquidity?”

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