Innovations to fuel the economies of the future

Henry Lin


April 28th, 2013

What are the technological innovations in energy production most likely to bring about a low carbon economy?

Globally we produce electricity from a diverse range of energy sources, from fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas, to renewables such as solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and biomass.  Finally nuclear energy hovers as an alternative with its own risks that belongs in neither camp. The problem is that there isn’t one energy source that can be described as clean, reliable, safe and economically viable. We are unable to cut our dependence on fossil fuels to provide base load energy to power our current and future economies. Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist and futurist states the attraction of fossils fuel succinctly: ‘pound for pound oil and coal contain the most energy in a convenient form than any other energy source on the planet. This is due to the fact it is essentially highly concentrated amounts of sunlight compressed and refined over generations, it pollutes like hell but is very efficient.’

As time goes by and the effects of global warming start to bite, we need to seriously consider alternatives to these polluting fossil fuels. This article will canvass energy sources available to us to power our future economies – commencing with the ‘white knight’ technologies such as large scale solar energy and fusion, and then discussing transitional technologies that offer the possibility of a bridge to a time when such innovations occur.

Firstly I would like to present a video of Michio Kaku talking on Bigthink about the coming solar energy revolution and the benefits of fusion power:

The key point in the video is that sometime in the near future, solar energy is likely to become a viable base load energy source. That is, once we solve the problem of storing the energy generated by the sun for use when the sun isn’t shining.

Kaku is also hopeful that this will be followed by a fusion revolution. Fusion technology is capable of generating vast amounts of energy. Whilst the energy is generated by a nuclear fission process, the technologies and raw materials used in fusion have little crossover with nuclear weapons, so there is no risk of nuclear proliferation. It is also cleaner than conventional nuclear energy as the trace amounts of radioactive waste last for only hundreds of years compared to tens of thousands of years for uranium fuelled plant. The main input is abundant sea water which could last us tens of millions of years and is renewable in this process as only certain chemicals found in seawater are filtered out and used.

Based on the likelihood of a technological solution Kaku believes that the problem of finding a way to lower carbon emissions may only be with us for a few decades. The one potential flaw in his argument is his predictions are too optimistic.

While we await ‘white knight’ innovations coming on stream, there are a number of economically viable power sources that can assist in lowering global emissions right now.

Natural gas is one unlikely candidate. Jeffery Frankel argued on Project Syndicate that the shale gas boom and subsequent substitution to natural gas power plants has led to a 12% fall in CO2 emissions in the US. This is despite the US not signing the Kyoto protocol and taking into account the effects of reduced emissions during the current periods of subdued economic activity. This is due to the fact that natural gas electricity plant only produces 50% of the emissions that coal fired plant do. He also raised the point that natural gas is better for local air quality than coal due to absence of sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and mercury. Frankel sees natural gas as a bridge to a time when renewables become dominant, as the rise of natural gas reduces the need for new coal fired power plants from being built in countries with readily available gas reserves.

However despite shale gas being cleaner, it is still a CO2 emitting fossil fuel. It’s like cutting down on the number of cigarettes you smoke a day rather than kicking the habit. It might be great transition in the short term, but if you continue to do this over the long run, you actually haven’t quit at all. It alone cannot be the satisfactory answer for governments in the coming years. This is especially true for countries that aren’t endowed with natural gas reserves.

France and Japan have opted for nuclear power. Prior to the Fukushima disaster these countries previously generated 79% and 25% of their electricity respectively from nuclear power plants. Nuclear power is an attractive proposition as it provides enormous amounts of cheap, reliable and emissions free power. Conventional nuclear energy however produces tonnes and tonnes of problematic long life radioactive waste and has its vulnerability to nuclear accidents.

Japan’s energy security challenges stand in stark contrast to countries which have geographical endowments that enable them to take advantage of existing renewable technologies. For example Iceland and Norway are able to produce 100% and 98% of their electricity from a combination of mostly geothermal (Iceland), tidal and wind. Most of the countries around the world aren’t so geographically well endowed. Thus given the inefficiencies of solar energy and the inability to capture, store and transport energy from renewables on a large scale, most countries run on fossil fuels, nuclear power and hydroelectricity.

But what if I told you there was a superior cousin to nuclear power as we know it – not quite as far from development as fusion – in the form of the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). Currently in further development and testing, Thorium power has attracted the attention of many around the world as a reliable substitute for fossil fuels. Thorium is substantially cleaner as it can use up 99% of the thorium fuel inputs, compared with less than 1% of uranium inputs being used in nuclear reactors. Thorium reactors can also partly consume existing nuclear waste as fuel. Waste is radioactive for approximately 300 years.  Unlike fusion there is still substantial reliance on thorium as a mineral input. However thorium is four times as abundant as uranium and is a waste product of rare-earth minerals mining that is already occurring. Using LFTRs, there is enough affordable thorium to satisfy the global energy needs for thousands of years. It also carries no risk of diversion for weapons purposes which is why countries in the past considered developing nuclear over thorium. Considering that Australia has the most abundant reserves of thorium in the world, we could be called the lucky country once again.

Although the future looks promising with the potential solar energy and fusion, we need more suitable sources of energy in the short term to sustain our economies and reduce CO2 simultaneously. All currently commercialized energy sources have their drawbacks. For renewable energies it’s the lack of efficiency, the inability to store the energy generated and hence the lack of reliability. As for nuclear it’s the high investment cost and the hazardous waste. As for shale gas it’s the CO2 emissions and the hidden risks of fracking. With continued efforts of governments to support the renewable energies industry and the renewed interest in thorium or other potential technologies, we have the potential to transition into the solar and fusion age smoothly and ultimately free ourselves from the reliance of fossil fuels.

Feel free to provide any comments or interesting developments in the energy sector I have missed in the comments section below.

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The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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