Last night I was flying back from speaking at TEDxYYC to Alabama and I had a bit of time on my flight, so I watched a program that I had recorded on PBS a few days earlier.
It was called “Plan-B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization” and it focused mostly on the work of Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, as he travelled the world and particularly through Asia discussing how climate change would affect food production, and ultimately, civilization.
The program began with what has become fairly standard fare in these types of programs, describing how fossil fuels have filled the atmosphere with CO2 and all the terrible things that will entail…I’ve seen all that before, many times.
I wanted to know about the solution set–what would Mr. Brown propose to do about it?
The answer was also unsurprising. Nuclear was dispatched in a single sentence as “too expensive.” That was the beginning and the end of the entire discussion on nuclear power. No consideration of how to change that fact, no allowance for any new technologies. Too expensive. Move on.
The tone of the music changed. It went from heavy and ominous to light and hopeful. Glorious computer-generated images of endless rows of offshore windmills appeared, all of them steadily rotating in the computer-generated breeze. These windmills were backlit by a setting sun. Golden light, an artist friend used to tell me, was the key to making everything beautiful. Golden light.
Then there was more optimism. Endless arrays of solar panels. Then the extruded parabola of the parabolic-trough solar concentrator. Even geothermal was included in the joy, with billowing white clouds of steam emerging from a plant nearly shrouded in white. The music told us what we needed to know–that this was good, virtuous stuff, and it was Going To Save Us.
I wish I shared the optimism. Because despite the computer-generated images of the high-speed rail cars moving through a landscape of windmills, the numbers just don’t add up. Solar and wind are too diffuse to be economical and too intermittent to be dependable. Geothermal is just thorium energy with a bad heat exchanger and a long time scale.
Matt Damon’s impassioned narration made it clear that Mr. Brown was absolutely committed to saving the world from the doom that lies ahead of us if we don’t change our ways. I ended the program wondering if I should email him about thorium/LFTR.
I’m still wondering and would appreciate your advice.