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Alien energy cube

Are alien energy cubes the answer to climate change?

There is a belief among conspiracy theorists that the US government recovered secret alien energy generation technology when a passing UFO crashed into the Nevada desert in 1947.  The reason, apparently, that we have not yet seen this energy technology is that “they” are determined to screw every last dollar of profit out of fossil fuels first.

In truth, what came down in the desert was most likely some prototype military plane that the US Air Force was working on – the UFO story being a cover put out by the Air Force PR people.

There are no alien energy cubes to save the day either.  But it isn’t just conspiracy theorists and UFO cranks who believe in alien energy cubes.  Eminent academics, economists and government ministers are just as prone to their own version of energy cubes – yet to be invented technologies that allow us to carry on with business as usual despite the growing threat from climate change.

What we (i.e. our governments) signed up to in Paris last November was a plan to keep climate change below 2 degrees and preferably below 1.5 degrees of warming.  Less well publicised was the provision that what remained of the carbon that the world could afford to burn belonged to developing countries who need it in order to transition to renewables.  You and I, dear reader, were supposed to have made dramatic cuts to our carbon consumption starting yesterday.

We didn’t of course.  UK energy consumption is currently flat; largely as a result of our anaemic economy.  And despite a slight shift toward renewables, UK energy policy is based around continuing to burn fossil carbon well into the century.  To put it another way, UK energy policy involves either stealing poor people’s carbon allocation or destroying our life support systems… probably both.

How does the UK government (and other western governments) get away with this?  By relying on two technologies that are currently as real as the alien energy cubes – carbon capture and storage (CCS) and nuclear fusion.  As Professor Myles Allen, quoted in the Guardian notes:

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by other means, such as renewable energy generation, [is] important but [will not] get the world to its target of releasing no excess greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That goal of ‘net zero emissions’ was enshrined in last December’s Paris climate deal…  sacrificing economic growth in the short term in order to pay for incremental emissions reduction could be counter-productive, if it prevented economies from growing to the extent needed for them to invest large amounts in CCS.”

The capture side of CCS technology is within reach, but has yet to be profitably deployed because the cost of retrofitting coal and gas power stations is too great.  The storage side is tougher as it involves pumping liquefied carbon dioxide into depleted gas fields and then hoping that the carbon does not leak out again.  The task of developing CCS was also made significantly harder when the UK government withdrew its funding last year leaving projects like those at Aberthaw and Drax in limbo.

The UK government has set aside funding for nuclear fusion – a technology no more likely to be developed than alien energy cubes.  ITER – which means “the way” in Latin – is the multi-billion pound physics experiment modestly promising to generate little more energy than it uses:

“The world record for fusion power is held by the European tokamak JET. In 1997, JET produced 16 MW of fusion power from a total input power of 24 MW (Q=0.67). ITER is designed to produce a ten-fold return on energy (Q=10), or 500 MW of fusion power from 50 MW of input power. ITER will not capture the energy it produces as electricity, but—as first of all fusion experiments in history to produce net energy gain—it will prepare the way for the machine that can.”

Which is, of course, a long way from the “energy too cheap to meter” that new energy technologies have always promised but inevitably failed to provide.  As Daniel Clery writing in Science observes:

“The multibillion-dollar ITER fusion project will take another 6 years to build beyond the—now widely discredited—official schedule, a meeting of the governing council was told this week. ITER management has also asked the seven international partners backing the project for additional funding to finish the job.”

There are also serious flaws with the chosen technology.  As a 2014 Editorial in the journal Nature pointed out:

“Even more problematic is the fusion fuel that ITER will ultimately use: a mix of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. The mixture has the virtue of igniting at just 100 million kelvin, lower than other potential fuels, but it also produces most of its energy as neutrons, which will damage the reactor walls — and make the reactor radioactive, producing another nuclear-waste-disposal problem.”

The problem is that so much time and energy have been invested in ITER, that none of the governments involved wants to be the one to pull the plug.  And so alternatives that might have had more chance of coming to fruition will never be tested; although even these look a lot like alien energy cubes to those of us who have spent the best part of 60 years being told that energy from fusion is just 20 years away… as, indeed, it still is.

What we need now is not a multi-billion dollar glorified physics experiment, but a multi-billion dollar investment in deploying the renewables and energy storage technologies that we already have.  And since even these will not be enough to keep climate change within safe limits (in the short-term at least) we will also need to give up a lot of our consumption and alter the way we work.  Or perhaps we will just carry on with business as usual and hope that aliens turn up to save the day.

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Let us not forget that beyond hard-pressed bill-payers are thousands more who can no longer afford electricity at all