June 15, 2015

Utopia wasn't built in a day

At the heart of every Edenic green dream is an obliviousness to the necessity of time and the demands of scale. A similar flaw shows up in near-future science fiction. Any razzle-dazzle infrastructure predicted to be ubiquitous a quarter-century from now has to be in the permitting process now.

When referencing the Space Race, remember that the chief architect of the Saturn V booster was Wernher von Braun, who'd launched 5200 V-2 liquid-fuel rockets during the 1940s. His designs were in large part based on Robert Goddard's groundbreaking research in the 1920s.

Japan Railways and its predecessors had started buying up rights-of-way for the Shinkansen thirty years before it debuted in 1964 (the war having put the original plans on hold). The route itself followed the centuries-old Tokaido Road.

These things take time. Unlike Jean-Luc Picard, no modern, democratic government can "Make it so" by merely ordering it. Even authoritarian regimes are finding it tough these days to rule by decree.

California is still a democracy. A messy one. The LA Times recently reported: "Finding a route into the Los Angeles Basin for the California bullet train is proving far more difficult than it seemed a year ago, as opposition is surging in wealthy and working-class communities alike."

Phase 1 of California High-Speed Rail project is supposed to be completed by 2029. Chances of Phase 1 getting done on time: zero. Chances of it never being finished: high. Discussing the various obstacles to the routes currently under debate, Steve Sailer concludes:

Theoretically, High Speed Rail could follow the existing tracks west through Simi Valley to Santa Barbara--I've taken the slow train to Santa Barbara. But nobody can conceive of the zillionaires of Santa Barbara allowing High Speed Rail to roar through Montecito, so that idea never comes up.

Even if we could nationalize all the beautiful back yards and ocean front vistas keeping such projects at bay, there's still the problem of actually building the thing. Or as Elon Musk would prefer, a whole bunch of things, explains Will Boisvert in "The Grid Will Not Be Disrupted."

Does all the messianic talk of battery-powered "disruption" and solar triumphalism stack up? Hardly. For all their ballyhooed price reductions, Tesla batteries are still too unreliable and expensive to come even within hyping distance of neither a reliable power supply, nor an off-grid revolution.

To get down to brass tacks:

(Click to enlarge.)

For that much money, Boisvert points out, you could build enough AP1000 nuclear power plants to completely decarbonize Germany's electrical supply. Germany presently gets 75 percent of its electrical power from fossil fuel sources. That's measurably higher than the U.S. (67 percent).

France gets eight (8!) percent of its electrical power from fossil fuels. Nuclear accounts for 77 percent.

Before Fukushima, Japan generated 30 percent of its electrical power from nuclear; it's now close to zero, the difference being made up by oil, gas, and coal. Unlike Germany, Japan intends to restart its nuclear plants. Like Germany, in the meantime, it's increasingly relying on coal.

We've been building steam-turbine generators since 1884. They generate terawatts of reliable power and run 24/7 for years. But "the falling price of wind and solar generators has distracted us from the external costs of trying to shape [wind and solar] into an energy source we can count on."

As I said: these things take time. Oh, I can well imagine renewables becoming "affordable" in the near future because of bounteous subsidies (not that India and China care; heck, if I were them, I'd sign any treaty put in front of me and keep burning coal).

Except subsidies don't change the laws of physics. All those wind and photovoltaic farms will require an equally large number of base load power plants (if not nuclear, then burning fossil fuels well into the next century) to mitigate the storage problems. Which we'll merrily pretend don't exist.

The carbon equation won't change one iota, but at the very least we can all feel better about ourselves.

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