Renewable Energy - An Interview with Scientific Expert Tom Murphy

Rising geopolitical tensions and high oil (NYSE:OIL) prices are continuing to help renewable energy find favour amongst investors and politicians. Yet how much faith should we place in renewables to make up the shortfall in fossil fuels? Can science really solve our energy problems, and which sectors offers the best hope for our energy future?


To help us get to the bottom of this spoke with energy specialist Dr. Tom Murphy, an associate professor of physics at the University of California.

Tom runs the popular energy blog Do the Math which takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth.


In the interview Tom talks about the following:


Why we shouldn’t get too excited over the shale boom

Why resource depletion is a greater threat than climate change

Why Fukushima should not be seen as a reason to abandon nuclear

Why the Keystone XL pipeline may do little to help US energy security

Why renewables have difficulty mitigating a liquid fuels shortage

Why we shouldn’t rely on science to solve our energy problems

Forget fusion and thorium breeders – artificial photosynthesis would be a bigger game changer Whilst you have proven that no renewable energy source can replace fossil fuels on its own. Which source is the most promising for providing cheap, abundant, clean energy?

Tom Murphy: First let me say that I think “proven” is too strong a word. But yes, I have certainly indicated as much. When it comes to cheap, clean, and abundant, I am drawn to solar. I don’t care if it’s two or three times the cost of fossil fuel energy that’s still cheap. Abundance is unquestionable, and I don’t see manufacturing as being inordinately caustic. The fact that I have panels on my roof feeding batteries in my garage only confirms for me the viability of this source of energy. Wind and next-generation nuclear also deserve mention as potential large-scale sources. Yet none of these help directly with a liquid fuels shortage. Bill Gates has stated that innovation in energy can take 50-60 years to take effect. How then do you believe that that the ARPA-E’s short term objectives for projects can be helpful for solving current energy problems?


Tom Murphy: I applaud any effort that takes our energy challenge seriously, and gets boots on the ground chasing all manner of ideas. If nothing else, it raises awareness about our predicament. At the same time, I worry about our technofix culture with a tendency to interpret news clips about ARPA-E projects to mean that we have loads of viable solutions in the hopper.

Many of the ideas are just batty. And right to the extent that implantation of innovation can take decades, we may find ourselves in a squeeze wondering where all those funky news blurbs went. What do you think is the most exciting energy science or energy technology being researched at the moment?


Tom Murphy: As cautious as I am about techno-giddiness, I do have the giggles for artificial photosynthesis. Combining universally available sunlight (in my own backyard) with a liquid fuel that can support personal and commercial transportation on land, sea, and air with minimal changes to infrastructure is too juicy for me to resist. More so than thorium breeders or even fusion, this is a real game-changer. The catch is that our finite periodic table may not avail itself to our wishes. Groups are now shaking the periodic table by its ankles, hoping that some new and unappreciated catalysts clank to the floor. I’m rooting for them, but at the same time advocate not relying on its realization. A recent report stated that replacing all coal based power stations with renewable energy, would not affect climate change, and in fact after 100 years the only difference would be a change of 0.2 degrees Celsius. What are your views on climate change?


Tom Murphy: I see climate change as a serious threat to natural services and species survival, perhaps ultimately having a very negative impact on humanity. But resource depletion trumps climate change for me, because I think this has the potential to effect far more people on a far shorter timescale with far greater certainty. Our economic model is based on growth, setting us on a collision course with nature. When it becomes clear that growth cannot continue, the ramifications can be sudden and severe. So my focus is more on averting the chaos of economic/resource/agriculture/distribution collapse, which stands to wipe out much of what we have accomplished in the fossil fuel age. To the extent that climate change and resource limits are both served by a deliberate and aggressive transition away from fossil fuels, I see a natural alliance. Will it be enough to avert disaster (in climate or human welfare)? Who can know – but I vote that we try real hard. Do you think that the shale gas boom will lead/has led to reduced investment in alternative energy, and could therefore limit the advancement of alternative energy and its mainstream implementation?


Tom Murphy: I do worry about the sentiment that “our problems are solved” based on a very short history of tapping low-hanging shale-gas fruit. David Hughes presented a sobering report to put these claims in perspective. Even though it is clear that shale gas will contribute to our net energy demands in an unanticipated way, I worry that A) extrapolations based on the “gusher” equivalents is risky; B) natural gas is not a direct answer to a liquid fuels shortage; and C) the associated exuberance can stifle the imperative that we have an all-hands-on-deck response to the looming challenges. What are your thoughts on Biofuels? Will they ever be able to compete with fossil fuels? If you were to pick one that you think has the best potential which would it be?


Tom Murphy: The scale of our fossil fuel use prohibits replacement by biofuels at a substantial level. They certainly can and do play a role, which I anticipate will increase with time – up to a point. The energy return on energy invested (EROEI) tends to be pretty poor (less than 10:1) even for the best examples like sugar cane. And it’s a heck of a lot of year-in-year-out work to manage harvests – much depending on the increasingly erratic weather. Of the biofuels, I am most intrigued by algae: mainly because it can be grown and moved about as a liquid medium in sealed tubes. That said, I worry about gunking up the works with bio-sludge, the algae contracting disease, and the fact that we have not yet found/created a viable hydrocarbon-excreting critter. Following the Fukushima disaster many have been calling for the end of nuclear power. What are your views? Should we abandon nuclear power? Are we in a position to abandon it?


Tom Murphy: I don’t think Fukushima should be seen as a reason to abandon nuclear. True, nuclear has its challenges, its risks, its hazardous wastes. But it’s one of the few things we know how to do that can scale. Of course conventional nuclear again stares right down the barrel of limited resources, which is a déjà-vu we would rather not experience. So next-generation

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