Ranking energy technologies, from wind turbines to corn ethanol


in Economics, Geek stuff, Politics, Science, Security, The environment

Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, headed up a study to quantitatively evaluate different electricity generation options, taking into consideration their impacts on climate, health, energy security, water supply, land use, wildlife, and more:

The raw energy sources that Jacobson found to be the most promising are, in order, wind, concentrated solar (the use of mirrors to heat a fluid), geothermal, tidal, solar photovoltaics (rooftop solar panels), wave and hydroelectric. He recommends against nuclear, coal with carbon capture and sequestration, corn ethanol and cellulosic ethanol, which is made of prairie grass. In fact, he found cellulosic ethanol was worse than corn ethanol because it results in more air pollution, requires more land to produce and causes more damage to wildlife.

It is naturally very difficult to assess the validity of any particular research methodology, given uncertainties about matters like the future development of technologies, the evolution of the global economy, the availability of fossil fuels, and so on. Nonetheless, it is good to see serious work being done on comparing the overall appropriateness of different energy technologies. Given the unwillingness of many states to impose serious carbon pricing solutions, and the tendency of governments to ‘pick winners’ when it comes to technologies being subsidized, the more high quality data available, the better.

While I haven’t looked over the study in detail, it does seem like the strongest objections raised against nuclear (which is ranked very badly) aren’t really about the environment or economics. The risk Jacobson highlights most is that of nuclear proliferation, and the dangers associated with making fissile material more widely available. Proponents of a nuclear renaissance probably won’t be keen to see discussion of “the emissions from the burning of cities resulting from nuclear weapons explosions potentially resulting from nuclear energy expansion.”

The entire study was published in Energy & Environmental Science, and can be accessed online.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan December 14, 2008 at 1:29 pm
Milan December 14, 2008 at 1:33 pm

I suggest skipping the first four minutes of the above talk, as they constitute a rather pointless story.

R.K. December 14, 2008 at 5:06 pm

This report seems more like the illusion of science than science itself.

It includes all sorts of non-scientific value judgments that aren’t always well-flagged.

Certainly, you can’t go from the data employed to the conclusions reached without making a lot of non-scientific decisions.

Milan December 15, 2008 at 9:00 am

In retrospect, deriving such a clear ranking from such an ambiguous methodology isn’t very scientific.

It would have been better to produce numerical scores for each category examined (land use, water use, etc) and present them in a table that shows the strengths and weaknesses of each technology.

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