Guest Blog: Energy Utopias And Engineering Reality

15 Nov 2019 | 10.58 am

Guest Blog: Energy Utopias And Engineering Reality

Many climate change mitigation proposals are pie-in-the-sky, says Prof. Michael Kelly

15 Nov 2019 | 10.58 am

Wholesale decarbonisation of the economy is beset by superficial thinking that ignores engineering reality, says Prof. Michael Kelly

 

More people live in safer and better conditions and are better fed than at any previous time in human history.

I now have a simple pragmatic question to ask. Suppose I agree to pay you £100 to dig a two-metre-deep hole for me to bury family treasure. You set about digging, but find your progress thwarted by a hundred people with wheelbarrows full of earth coming to fill in your hole.

What would you do? Keep on digging regardless or stop and try to find out what is going on? To your protest that you are being paid to dig a hole, you are told that the others are being paid much more to fill in any holes that appear!

At this time there are people in several countries, including both the United Kingdom and New Zealand, both of whose passports I hold, who are straining to turn off the last coal-fired power stations in the cause of climate change mitigation.

But the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, the largest civil engineering project in the world, will help over 2 billion people in West Asia and Africa out of poverty and hunger over the next 30 years, just as earlier projects took 600 million people in China from rural squalor to middle-class comfort over the last 20 years.

The initiative will include 700 new coal-fired power stations, over a third of which are currently being built. I do not support the neo-colonialist tendencies associated with the initiative, but it will go further than any other project to deliver the first and second of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: the elimination of world poverty and hunger. The climatic Sustainable Development Goal is number 13 on the list.

Undefinable

Biblical scholars will recall the story of the Tower of Babel, with key lessons which engineers have long since learned. When people set out to build a tower to heaven, they had no way of knowing how to determine that they had in fact completed the tower by reaching heaven. Nor did they know in advance how much it would cost.

Climate mitigation shares the same two characteristics – no one can define what it means to have averted climate change, nor how much it will cost. Extinction Rebellion simply have no idea of the scale of cost of what they are demanding by 2025: if they did, they would back away.

Next, I refer to germane speeches from three US presidents. In his farewell address in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower said:

“. . . in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger than public policy could become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

That is where we are now. The following year, John F. Kennedy used the famous expression ‘We choose to go to the Moon’, while speaking to a crowd in Houston. As he was saying this, his key advisors could have confirmed that there were no known scientific or technological impediments to this project – it just needed will and support.

But contrast this with Richard Nixon, who said, during his 1971 State of the Union address:

“I will also ask for an appropriation of an extra $100 million to launch an intensive campaign to find a cure for cancer, and I will ask later for whatever additional funds can effectively be used. The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease. Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal.”

When Nixon said those words, no advisors would have suggested a cure for cancer was around the corner, as we must recognise 50 years later.

So the recent academic plea for mass leave of absence to ‘save the planet’ was quite misleading in appealing to the moon-shot as an exemplar – climate is more akin to the cancer example.

Just so that there can be no doubt whatsoever, the real-world data shows me that the climate is changing, as indeed it has always changed. It would appear by correlation that mankind’s activity, by way of greenhouse gas emissions, is now a significant contributory factor to that change. However, the precise percentage quantification of that factor is far from certain.

Pie-In-The-Sky

The global climate models seem to show heating at least twice as fast as the observed data over the last three decades. I am unconvinced that climate change represents a proximate catastrophe, and I suggest that a mega-volcano in Iceland that takes out European airspace for six months would eclipse the climate concerns in short order.

The detailed science is not my concern here. Project engineering has rules of procedure and performance that cannot be circumvented, no matter how much one would wish it. Much of what is proposed by way of climate change mitigation is simply pie-in-the-sky, and engineering reality must underpin the public debate.

Our present energy infrastructure is vast and has evolved over 200 years. So the chances of revolutionising it in short order on the scale envisaged by the net-zero target is pretty close to zero; zero being exactly the chance of the meeting Extinction Rebellion’s demands.

•  Professor Michael Kelly is emeritus professor of engineering at the University of Cambridge.  Read his full address to the Global Warming Policy Foundation here

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