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Tech Today or Tech Tomorrow? Energy Debate 2

Unlikely Friends in a DebateThis is Part Two on a debate by The Economist. The official debate concluded earlier this week, but you can still vote and leave comments or critique. The question was:

“Can we solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations?”

Though we often envision debates as pitting two opponents against each other, hopefully in an intense battle of wit and wordsmithing, this one was not so. Both sides found themselves agreeing with each other more often than not, and parried with points on implementation.

solar power chargedProposition

Mr. Joseph J. Romm, who sides with massive technology deployment, points out that massive renewable technology development should have a positive economic result. All that construction creates jobs, and studies have suggested that in the long term you can reasonably expect gross economic growth after implementing a plan like this.

Cleantechnica has written before that wind power is most cost effective after building regional manufacturing factories. Think of the cost of shipping a 50ft (or larger) turbine blade long distances! Similar principles also apply for bulky or delicate solar technologies.

There’s also an issue concerning the way some electric producers bring home the bacon. If they earn the most money when customers use the most energy, encouraging energy efficiency or decreasing CO2 emissions looks like bad business. In some places regulations have decoupled profit from generation. Energy companies earn money from energy efficiency, so they still get a cut when their customers use less. As a result, you see huge solar projects and initiatives rolling out of states like California.

So why is massive deployment better than improving our infrastructure? Two reasons: first, bigger is cheaper. Industries of scale are a great way to reduce prices. By building the existing renewable energy manufacturing base faster, hopefully you can make it cost effective sooner. Secondly, you give existing companies opportunity to learn from and perfect their products and their business strategy. Romm refers to a “learning curve“, which is necessary to bring any product to peak efficiency – the best possible product performance and business performance. Together, both can dramatically drive prices down. Then the market can take care of itelf.

off shore wind farmOpposition

Peter Meisen believes that we need to upgrade our infrastructure first, then work on deploying all that renewable technology. The reason is simple enough: at the moment we don’t have the power lines to link remote energy production, like solar thermal and wind power, to population centers where it’s needed. He attempts to overcome two problems, base load and energy storage, with the same solution: a massive, interconnected energy grid.

With centralized power production, most energy is needed during the day so at night some power stations sit idle, which is not efficient. If vast regions across multiple time zones shared their energy reserves, in theory the energy could be used more efficiently. Available energy could move throughout a massive grid to where it’s needed, when it’s needed. This would naturally require a vast expansion of existing power grids, upgrading less efficient transmission lines, and sharing across multiple political boarders. Energy produced in Denmark could help power Paris under this scheme.

In the midst of this infrastructure upgrade/ restructuring, several priorities must be implemented. Energy conservation comes first, then energy efficiency and renewable energy.This strategy is better because it makes the most of the technology we have today, and it provides the opportunity to improve and upgrade our ageing technology. Building a new wind farm doesn’t help if you can’t connect it to the grid, and even then it’s possible that some of its clean energy will go to waste if extra energy can not be distributed to the places that need it. Conversely, if the wind (or sun) aren’t available locally, you can rely on a distant source of clean, green energy.

nuclear plant in ArkansasThe catch is that both plans would require an intelligent and massive political and industry push that would last years, if not decades. To provide well-rounded points of view, guest comments from this week include the case for future technologies, and the need for continued research and innovation. There is also an expert comment favoring nuclear power. Reader comments also provide jewels of technical know-how and innovative ideas.

My only critique is the extra political will required for the Opposition’s side. Is it reasonable to believe that dozens, if not hundreds of countries would be willing to share electricity in a permeable, friendly way? If so, what about energy security in times of conflict or disaster? What happens if a natural disaster damages the grid of an entire nation? Or the nation’s neighbor?

The fact that both sides of the debate were mostly in agreement about technology playing a role now makes a potent point. Most people, and probably most experts, agree that the question is not whether to act, or when to act, but how to act. This debate calls for immediate planning and implementation. That’s why instead of disagreeing with each other over this or that solar technology, they move into differing views of how to use it now.

In fact, the debate was so amiable that some readers protested. What’s the point if both sides seem to be on the same side? Other readers, and indeed comments from Cleantechnica’s previous post, pointed out that both strategies – technology deployment and infrastructure improvement – need to be done simultaneously.

The Debate Moderator replied that economically speaking, “you cannot spend the same dollar twice.” It’s safe to assume that any given government and/or industry is not going to allocate infinite resources to a project of this scale, despite the urgency of the issue. With finite resources it is then necessary to find the most efficient strategy to get the biggest bang for each buck – hence the “this or that” structure of the debate question.

So which strategy is most cost effective?

I leave that question to you, the reader. Feel free to leave an opinion below.

All Photo Credit attributed to the Flickr Creative Commons. “Mo Sleep Friend” via Bill in Ash Vegas, “Wall-E Solar Charge” via Gymkata, “Wind Farm off Dee Estuary” via ➨ Redvers, “Arkansas Nuclear One” via Topato.

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Written By

is an environmentalist who loves to write. She grew up across the southeastern USA and especially love the Appalachian mountains. She went to school in the northeast USA in part to witness different mindsets and lifestyles than those of my southern stomping grounds. She majored in English Lit. and Anthropology. She has worked as a whitewater rafting guide, which introduced her to a wilderness and the complex issues at play in the places where relatively few people go. She also taught English in South Korea for a year, which taught her to take nothing for granted.


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