Myths and Misconceptions of Climate Change, Assumptions and Concepts, Energy Dynamics, and Energy Transitions


Instructions: 

I want to see evidence of applying critical thinking and clear communication of specific course content we’ve learned from the semester—blended with your individual insights.

Describe six personal assumptions (beliefs about how the world works, but cannot prove it) that have changed (or not) as a result of this course? (e.g. Related to the role of certain energy resources, impact of human activity on environmental change, business side of energy, the politics of energy, speed of change vs market share change, et al. Hint: Reference specific content and how it changed or confirmed your assumptions) 

What assumptions have changed? (Three – 3)

  1. Assumptions are more important than I initially believed them to be. See chapter 4 reflection for the personal impact on my life that making assumptions has had.
  2. The speed at which human life expectancy and health shows me that change can happen faster than you think and at any time. The Rosling videos convinced me that dramatic world events have a huge impact on the individual.
  3. Discontinuities play a larger role in societal change than trends do. Trends only tell you what will happen if the status quo is preserved. By definition, human advancement into the future dramatically alters the status quo.

What assumptions remain unchanged? (Three – 3)

  1. Humans have an impact on their environment, seen and unforeseen. One small discontinuity can drastically change the way humans live (the oil boom, the development of the electrical grid, and the advent of the automobile).
  2. Technology will provide for the development of alternative sources of energy. The only impediments to renewables are political inaction, individuals believing their actions won’t change anything, and the incumbency of conventional energy sources.
  3. Social activism is key for political change. Without individuals coming together to demand better, cleaner sources of energy, change will occur slowly, if at all.

Imagine you have been asked by the White House to help create a national ‘Future of Energy & Environment 101’ educational campaign designed to reach the general public.

First; what might be the top few ‘Myths or Misperceptions’ associated with the future of energy that you need to dispel? In other words- first identify what you think is misunderstood by the public- then tell me how you might correct this misinformation.

 A few myths that need to be dispelled are that nuclear energy is not a safe form of energy, renewables aren’t going to help our energy supply, and that using less energy is the same as being energy efficient.

Advancements in recent nuclear technology have made the Generation III plants safer, and have provided for fuel improvements, thermal efficiency, and a more standardized design, all of which greatly improve the safety and efficiency of nuclear power plants. They have also improved the lifetime of the reactors which allows for longer operation of plants and a higher return on investment. The current nuclear plants in the United States are older and will be shut down in the future. With better regulations regarding placement, design, and types of power plants, this can be an environmentally clean way of providing energy to the public. Due to the poor placement of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi plant, a major earthquake triggered a tsunami, and while the safety precautions worked correctly, there was still a disaster because the backup generators were not built in a way that would withstand a tsunami. Japan is one of the countries that have the highest risk of an earthquake occurring. Nuclear power plants should never be placed near fault lines or where earthquakes have consistently occurred in the past. The regulators in Japan had not adopted global safety standards which led to decreased structural integrity of the plant and its backup systems. Currently, in the United States there are 5 nuclear power plants near known earthquake hotspots on the West Coast. I would advocate that they be shut down, or be required to go through an extremely rigorous regulation process which will include ensuring proper backup energy systems in cases of emergency shut downs that will keep the fuel rods cool, thus preventing a meltdown. This regulation process should also include a review of structural integrity and contingencies for natural disasters.

Renewable energy sources will play a major part in the future due to technological advancements that are occurring at an increasingly rapid pace. We have already seen how quickly technology can improve in the case of the personal computer, which depend on microprocessors. The quality of your microprocessor depends on the number of transistors: the more transistors there are, the better a computer is. According to Moore’s Law, the number of transistors in a computer will double approximately every two years. The same general theory can be applied to technology in other areas such as increased efficiency in solar panels, higher capacity fuel cells that can be used to account for downtime, increased ability to transmit electricity over longer distances through technological advancements in materials that lessen resistance to flow, and advancements in nanotechnology which could completely change the game of renewable energy.

Being energy efficient doesn’t mean you just turn your lights off when you leave a room. This is energy conservation. Energy efficiency is getting more bang for your buck, more usage out of less electricity generation, which then reduces the amount of fuel required by power plants, which in turn is better for the environment. This also follows the same general principal of Moore’s Law, where advancement in efficient technology will be increasing at a faster rate as time goes on. The more energy efficient appliances in a household, the lower your electricity bill. This does not mean using your AC less, but rather making the AC unit better.

 Second; what do you believe are the five (5) most important concepts that every person should know about the future of energy? (e.g. GDP + Population growth = Energy Demand, difference between ‘growth’ vs ‘market share’, carbon pricing schemes, et al). This list is your vision, but please be sure to explain the value of each concept and why you selected it as a Top 5! Remember, blend specific course material with your own ideas.  Tie in names of people/stakeholders and content we’ve covered! You may include concepts not yet covered in the course but be sure to provide research support or links to sources if it helps us as graders.

  1. Human population growth and the development of currently underdeveloped countries will increase the demand for energy worldwide. This will cause an energy shortage/crisis because fossil fuels are a finite resource, and once conventional sources are depleted, unconventional sources become even more expensive to develop.
  2. Individual human impacts on the environment will play a large role in the future of energy despite the fact that each individual decision seems to have no impact on the whole system. Eventually, all of the small choices that are made will add up into a larger impact that is felt globally. These large impacts on the human race will cause individuals to come together as a society and demand a change in energy sources. Essentially, it will get to a point where negative environmental effects will be seen on a scale where individuals will demand change from their governments in the form of social revolution.
  3. The Law of Diminishing Returns, or the S-curve, will have a major role in the development and production of the types of energy used in the future. When it is no longer profitable for companies to sell wood, they move on to coal. When coal is no longer profitable, they change their product to natural gas. When natural gas becomes too cost prohibitive, the energy industry will move on to the next emerging energy source.
  4. The amount of money being subsidized by the U.S. government is not in an effort to drop prices on renewable sources of energy, but to increase employment and output of capital. This is a short term effect, and it is this effect that will eventually, in the long run, reduce prices on renewable fuels. In essence, subsidies of renewable energy are a long term investment in our energy future. This also stabilizes the market, making it less vulnerable to market fluctuation, thus allowing renewable energy to focus on technological development, rather than the forces of supply and demand. This idea of economics was proposed by John Maynard Keynes, a revolutionary economist who is considered to be the founder of modern macroeconomics: Keynesian Economics. (Blinder)
  5. As more and more countries agree that there must be a price on carbon, and move to implement those policies, there will be economic pressure on energy companies to develop cleaner technology in an effort to avoid the carbon tax. This carbon tax must be akin to principles of the income tax, a progressive taxation system in which the burden of taxation increases as income increases. There can be no loopholes or it will fail. If a regressive taxation system is implemented, it will hurt the poorest individuals and companies the most. This reduces the impact of the carbon tax by making rich companies pay less of the total tax burden. Rich companies would then be able to simply write off the tax as the cost of doing business rather than investing in cleaner technology so they can avoid having to pay the tax.

Describe the transition from conventional to unconventional hydrocarbon supplies. What does it mean for dynamics of supply, production, emissions, costs, geopolitics, et al? Describe both perceived benefits and trade-offs with this transition.

Conventional hydrocarbons are fossil fuels that are easy to extract from the ground, oil and gas that flows easily out of the underground reservoir. Unconventional hydrocarbon extraction requires that, in order for the fossil fuels to flow easily, humans must cause it to happen. Hydraulic fracturing is a prime example of unconventional natural gas extraction, where shale formations are fractured with explosives in order to release the trapped gas. Another prime example of unconventional hydrocarbons are tar sands, or oil sands, where the oil is not a pure liquid, but is mixed with clays, sands, water, and a heavy, black, viscous oil called bitumen. Because these unconventional hydrocarbons require extra steps to reap the benefits of extraction, it costs more to pump and refine the hydrocarbons. There is also an environmental impact because the processes used to get the unconventional sources to market end up releasing more greenhouse gases than conventional oil sources, usually due to extra combustion in the refinement process. The ecosystem is often damaged by the removal of unconventional sources, sometimes beyond repair. Due to removal of natural vegetation (trees, grasses, shrubs, etc.) in the case of tar sands, a sink for CO­2 is being taken away, and natural habitats are destroyed, which can lead to extinction of many species. In the case of hydraulic fracturing, toxic chemicals, along with water and sand, are pumped down wells, then extracted, and either stored underground or taken to hazardous waste facilities. There have been studies done linking the injection of fluids into underground geological formations to an increased number of earthquakes (Walsh III and Zoback).

The refinement and transportation of tar sands is a highly charged geopolitical issue. In the case of the Keystone XL pipeline, the political players are Canada and the United States, as well as the individual states in which the pipeline would pass through.  The almost 1,200 mile addition of pipelines will carry tar sands from Alberta, Canada to the existing pipeline network of the Gulf Coast region. The debate hinges on two conflicting worldviews: the environmental versus the economic. People in the energy industry who are concerned with energy independence and the bottom line want the pipeline because it allows for easier transportation from the source to the refineries and markets. Proponents argue that a stronger energy tie to Canada will reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern markets for oil, which are often tumultuous and controlled by less friendly interests. Opponents argue that the risk of seismic activity or corrosion would increase the risk of pipeline failure, leading to an environmental and political disaster.

However, the discovery and extraction of unconventional hydrocarbons increases our domestic supply, leading to less dependency on foreign oil, lower prices, and widespread availability. Natural gas releases less CO2 into the atmosphere, but leaks from pipelines and from other storage sources cause an increase in methane emissions. Methane is about 25 times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. This would not help slow climate change, but it would help us move away from coal and towards a more sustainable future with natural gas being a stepping stone.

 Explain why GDP + Population growth is the most relevant measure for forecasts used to understand future energy demands. Then link and introduce two separate Demographic transitions likely to occur in nations around the world, and why they are relevant to the future of energy and the environment.  (Tip: Be sure to integrate the Energy Ladder concept into demographic transition answers)

Gross Domestic Product is the total amount of all goods and services produced in a country, during a period of one year. Population growth is a key factor in increasing GDP, as more people who are working contribute more to the countries’ economy. As the GDP increases, energy demand increases.

GDP per capita is the amount of the GDP per person; in layman’s terms it is how wealthy each individual is on average in a country. GDP per capita is skyrocketing in India, China, Bolivia, Israel, and other developing nations. This means that there will be more demand per individual per country for energy. As demand increases, nations are forced to move up the energy ladder and provide their citizens with better quality energy.

As people become healthier in these nations, the life expectancy increases and infant mortality rates decrease. This further increases population density, and as more people live closer together, energy demand will further skyrocket. Cities require much more electricity and energy than rural areas, and, generally, provide a higher standard of living due to the proximity of health care centers, water treatment facilities, proper waste disposal, and other modern conveniences that Americans take for granted.

Support or critique the proposition that climate change policy and educational campaigns should focus primarily on oceans. Why (or why not) might this framing of climate change issues be more important for impacts, policy change, restoration efforts, et al.  In your answer be sure to highlight the fundamental reasons why oceans might be concerned a central lens for climate change (e.g. salinity, micro-organisms and CO2 sink, heat exchange).

 The oceans are a large carbon dioxide sink, but the more CO2 that is absorbed, the more acidic the water becomes. This can be fatal for micro-organisms when a change in pH affects the internal processes of the organism, causing the processes to become less efficient leading to eventual death. If these organisms undergo a massive extinction event, the absorption capability of the oceans will be reduced, leading to an increasingly rapid change in global average temperatures. The temperature of the earth is largely controlled by how much solar radiation reaches the surface and then reflects back into the atmosphere. The earth moderates the temperature through ocean currents, which, in the Northern Hemisphere, carries the warmest waters northward and draws the cold, polar waters south to cool the tropics. We have seen an increase in surface ocean temperatures which causes the water to expand, ice to melt faster, and sea levels to rise. When the Arctic sea ice melts, the darker ocean is exposed and absorbs more solar radiation leading to warmer temperatures which cause the feedback loop to amplify. As the sea surface temperature increases, the atmospheric temperature increases, speeding up the melting of continental ice. When the Antarctic ice sheet melts, humanity is in for a huge migration away from the coast lines, because that is when we will see the largest increase in sea level. This would disrupt the entire heating and cooling system of the earth, leading to a climate similar to the time of the dinosaurs with high temperatures, high levels of carbon dioxide, and mass extinction events, which could lead to the eventual destruction of the human race. 

References:

Blinder, Alan S. “Keynesian Economics.” Library of Economics and Liberty (2008). Electronic. 17 October 2015. <http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/KeynesianEconomics.html>.

Walsh III, F. Rall and Mark D. Zoback. “Oklahoma’s recent earthquakes and saltwater disposal.” Science Advances 1.8 (2015). Electronic . 16 October 2015. <http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1500195>.

These are assignments that I have turned in for my TECH 4310 Future of Energy and Environment class, these are my own thoughts and you may not take them without citing them. I will not post them all, but a majority of them.

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