Practical Solutions to Pretend Problems
Let us assume, for the space of at least one column, that your not-so-humble correspondent agrees with the proposition that mankind’s increasing use of fossil fuels has released an unhealthy amount of heat trapping compounds into the atmosphere – primarily in the form of carbon dioxide.
People from Al Gore to Leonardo DiCaprio to Greta Thunberg cry that we are in the midst of a “climate crisis.” A few years ago AOC declared that we had only twelve years left to fix the “crisis” or else mankind was doomed. Just about every Democrat, and a disturbing number of Republicans, accept this point of view.
I don’t agree that we are in the midst of a “climate crisis,” along with millions of fellow scientists and a great many non-scientists. But let’s assume – for the sake of argument – that we’re all wrong. Let’s put aside our personal risk assessment and say that the “climate crisis” is real, that the world is in grave danger and that if we don’t do something to reduce carbon dioxide emissions substantially and immediately, there will be hell to pay. How would we react?
If this is truly a “crisis”, shouldn’t we be doing everything possible to solve it? If a fire breaks out in your home, you do everything you can to put it out as quickly as possible. You grab a fire extinguisher. You turn on a garden hose. You use a rug to smother the flames. Etc.
You don’t do nothing. Sure, you can call the fire department, but if there are actual things you can do to mitigate the damage before firefighters arrive, without putting your life in danger, you do them. Using the fire extinguisher, or garden hose, or rug might result in some property damage that you will have to clean up later, but so what? Better cleaning up a mess than rebuilding your home once it’s a charred pile of rubble.
Were the climate crisis as bad as Al, Leo, Greta et al. assure us it is, wouldn’t you think they would do anything and everything to combat it? There a lot of actions individuals can take and a lot of programs that politicians can advocate that could have and still can make massive reductions in fossil fuel use. They are easy and unlike most actions that "climate change" alarmists demand of us, they are not costly to average citizens.
You rarely, if ever, hear about these alternatives in the Mainstream Media or among politicians who buy into the “climate crisis” narrative. The universal message on the Left (and all messages on the Left these days are universal – dissenters will be cancelled) is that all energy generation moving forward must be “renewable” and thus “sustainable." Practical and achievable are not features at issue.
Their formula involves a mix of wind power, which is unreliable; solar power, which is spectacularly unreliable outside of a very limited number of locations; and large-scale battery-storage, which has moved from the realm of “insanely impractical and expensive” to “crazily unreasonable and costly” after decades of research.
Maybe there are other things we could do that could meaningfully reduce carbon dioxide emissions? Maybe some of those things are a lot less expensive than the windmill-solar -battery approach? Maybe they’re even practical? Let’s consider a couple of practical actions that alarmists could have and still can advocate if they truly believe that the “climate crisis” is real.
- First: turn off your air conditioning. Getting rid of incandescent light bulbs did just about nothing to reduce energy usage in the United States. On the other hand, refusing to use air conditioning would have a massive effect on energy usage and, by extension, domestic carbon dioxide emissions.
Like most of my fellow boomers, I grew up without air conditioning. Yes, those 100 + degree days in July and August sucked, but we got through them. People can deal with heat. If every member of the Sierra Club, every liberal celebrity and every Democrat pledged never to use air conditioning again, the savings in energy and the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in the United States would be huge. So, why aren’t they taking this hit to save the planet?
- Next, promote natural-gas fired, combined-cycle power plants. We're awash in clean-burning natural gas reserves. Combined-cycle is, by far, the most efficient way to burn it. It’s so efficient that the Sierra Club used to promote use of this technology back in the nineties, before they went off the deep end. Having trashed coal, they now also demonize natural gas, the fuel on which combined-cycle depends and which they used to champion.
In general, most fossil fuel generated power is produced using one of two thermodynamic “cycles”: the Rankine Cycle, which uses the heat generated by combustion of a fossil fuel to turn water into steam, which then spins a turbine to generate power, and the Brayton Cycle, which uses the expansion of gas to directly spin a turbine to generate power.
A boiler uses the Rankine Cycle. Burning a fuel such as coal or natural gas creates heat. That heat is transferred to pipes through which flows liquid water. The liquid water is vaporized to steam, under pressure. The steam then carries enough energy to spin a turbine that produces power.
Gas turbines, like jet engines, use the Brayton Cycle. Burning a fuel such as natural gas or kerosene makes the fuel expand in volume significantly. This expansion produces enough energy to directly spin a turbine that generates energy.
Both the Rankine Cycle and the Brayton Cycle are about 30 -35 percent efficient. That is, for every 100 units of energy you put into the system, you get about 1/3 the energy back in the form of useful power. But, that math changes when you combine the two cycles. There are plants in the U.S. that burn natural gas to generate power through the Brayton Cycle, and then use the heat of the expanded gases to spin a turbine generator. This heat is used to generate steam from liquid water, which spins another turbine, effectively taking advantage of the Rankine Cycle.
A plant that uses a the Brayton Cycle to spin a turbine directly and the Rankine Cycle to spin a steam turbine is called a “combined-cycle plant.” This type of plant is about twice as efficient as any other type of fossil-fueled power plant. An administration that seriously wanted to reduce domestic fossil fuel use would have subsidized and advanced reliable combined-cycle power plants rather than shoving unreliable, expensive, “sustainable” forms of power generation like wind and solar down our throats.
But, we know that the “Climate Crisis” charlatans are not even close to serious about their messaging. If they were, they would have introduced the two simple concepts above into the discussion. If they were, they would have also talked about the roles of Red China and nuclear power in any energy discussion—ideas we’ll discuss in a future column.