Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Energy Supply and Bananas:

A Scary Parallel

I recently came across an article on bananas that reminded me of arguments about the future sources of energy.  If that sounds strange, bear with me.

The article pointed out that our supply of bananas today is virtually a monoculture--almost all the bananas that are commercially marketed are of only one variety.  The article goes into the history of bananas, saying that once before, we had a different monoculture, and it was basically wiped out by a disease that spread internationally.  The threat raised in the article was that we are on the verge of the same thing happening again.  Since I'm not an expert on bananas, I'll leave it to the reader to research the original article if they are interested.

However, what struck me is how so much of the dialogue on our future energy supply proposes to cut down on options and have all our needs met by just a few sources.  I think of all the bold statements I keep seeing:  We have to get rid of coal.  Or all fossil fuels.  Or nuclear power.  Solar and wind power can potentially meet all our needs.

The reality for our energy supply is almost as stark as it is for our banana supply--a monoculture has a lot of potential downsides.  In the energy world, the risks can come not only from something happening to a single source of power, but also from the "fit" of different energy sources into all the varied--and changing--environments and applications in our world.

A few examples come to mind:  While there are multiple sources of fossil fuels, some of the rare earths used for wind power are presently available from limited sources, in particular, China, so a cut-off in supply, whether for political or other reasons, could affect the ability to meet our energy needs with wind power.  Likewise, the identification of a serious design flaw that requires the shutdown of a lot of operating power plants of any one type, or a political reaction, such as shutdowns of nuclear plants in Japan and Germany, can lead to impacts ranging from increased pollution to serious health and safety impacts for vulnerable segments of the population.  And different geographical areas have different wind patterns, different amounts of sunshine, different sources and amounts of cooling water, different population distributions and density, etc., so not all energy sources are equal "fits" to all locations.  

In addition, as Jim Conca points out in Forbes, changing climate and weather patterns can also affect our energy supply.  In recent years, extreme winter weather has stalled the delivery of fossil fuels.  Hydropower is vulnerable to river flows which can be affected by changes in climate and precipitation.  Wind power is affected by temperature changes that result in changes in air pressure, and hence, in wind speeds.  Climate change will also affect cloud cover, and therefore, solar power.  And rises in water temperature affect the efficiency of all water-cooled power plants, including both fossil and nuclear plants.  Over-reliance on any one type of technology will exacerbate any of these effects.

As always, these dire warnings are not a fait accompli.  If we identify and characterize these vulnerabilities in time, we may be able to develop ways to address some of them.  However, we can't count on figuring out every possibility in advance, and we can't count on finding ways to completely address every possible risk.  The simplest and most robust measure society can take is to adopt a policy of developing and using multiple sources of energy.  In this way, the impacts of a short- or long-term cutoff of one source of energy, for any reason, will be limited, and the ability of the overall system to compensate for such cutoffs will be maximized.

After all, a loss of bananas is one thing, but a loss of the energy that powers just about every aspect of our lives is quite another.