Links for the Week Ending 11th August

  • Just occasionally we get some good news on climate change issues. The Financial Times published a full-page article near the end of the week on the increasing competitiveness of solar versus fossil fuels (free registration with the FT gives access to the article). In short, solar panels have come down their cost curves so quickly that they have reached the point where the economics stack up without government subsidies.
  • Much more discouraging is to see PM David Cameron throw his weight behind UK-based fracking in The Telegraph today. A major argument of the pro-fracking lobby is that shale gas CO2 emissions are far lower than those of coal. Accordingly, the substitution of shale gas for coal in electricity generation should allow natural gas to act as a bridge fuel that buys us time until renewable or nuclear technology matures. Unfortunately, the methane leaks associated with fracking make this assertion highly contentious. See, for example, here.
  • And Tom Murphy on his excellent “Do the Math” blog sets out in considerable wonkish detail why electric cars still need to get much further down their cost curves before they can compete with internal combustion engine rivals without a swathe of subsidies. Tom (as with myself and my Prius) has still opted for an electric, with the ethical consideration tipping the balance. However, given the strong psychological roots behind the average person’s climate change denial, hybrids and electrics will need to beat gasoline in a straight out financial fight before they can contribute significantly to CO2 reduction.
  • In 2000, the political scientist Robert Putnam came out with a landmark book called “Bowling Alone“. The book claimed that the atomisation of American life was destroying civil society. In The New York Times this week, Putnam has a beautifully written op-ed piece chronicling the decline of his home town Port Clinton, Ohio. The article tackles all those themes that have made the achievement of ‘the American Dream’ so much harder in recent decades.
  • Putnam’s piece was published as part of an NYT series of articles called “The Great Divide”, which is moderated by Nobel prize winner (economics) Joseph Stiglitz. There is some great writing within this series, much of which touches upon my preoccupation with a possible end to economic growth.

2 responses to “Links for the Week Ending 11th August

  1. Michael Ashby’s ‘Materials and the Environment’ has an interesting chapter on low carbon power and materials contraints – indium & uranium for nuclear; silver for concentrating thermal; gallium, indium & tellurium for solar PV; platinum or lanthanum for fuel cells; neodymium for wind – and it doesn’t look good. I fear the supply cost curve of renewables might be U-shaped. Similarly, Andre Diederen’s ‘Global Resource Depletion’.

  2. Matthew. I agree that over the longer term we are moving from extracting raw materials with a low degree of entropy to those with a high degree of entropy. Accordingly, all inputs into renewable manufacturing will ultimately peak some day. I don’t feel well-informed enough to hazard a guess at the timing of such peaks so thanks for your references, which will be helpful.

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