We have an energy problem. At the end of the day, no energy source is free. We all want energy that is readily available, reliable, and without external costs. We want to be able to cheaply power our HDTV, our car, and our furnace. We want our supply chains to be affordable, so prices will be low. In short, we want the magic elixir that will allow us to carry on in our current configuration without having to change.
Unfortunately, we are painfully unaware of the external costs of the energy we produce. Gwyneth Cravens, on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, spoke about the cost of coal:
“But I would just like to remind people that over 10,000 people a year die in the United States alone from fine particulates from coal-fired plants, which, incidentally, spew out more – it’s a low-dose radioactive material, but burning coal concentrates uranium and radon – radium, and so on. And so in the coal ash, the waste which lies around in unlined pits, there’s enough in the coal ash of one big coal-fired plant to make about six atomic bombs, uranium 235. So the – and the stuff coming out of the stacks looks – you know, you don’t see the soot anymore so much, but you see – or you don’t – what you don’t see are these invisible gases, sulfur and nitrogen gases which turn into fine particulates when they’re combined with water vapor and get into the airways of our lungs and kill people with lung cancer and heart disease. So this is an ongoing catastrophe, along with ocean acidification. As the ocean takes up more carbon dioxide, the water becomes more acidic. This is beginning to affect shelled organisms like corals. They can’t make the calcium carbonate shells in the acidic waters. And so – and about three million people a year die from fossil fuel combustion pollution worldwide. We have to think about how to provide base-load electricity – that is 24/7, around-the-clock electricity. We are witnessing in Japan what happens when you don’t have electricity and how terrible that is for people from the health point of view alone.”
In Japan, we are seeing at Fukushima Daiichi what a 9.0 Earthquake and a massive tsunami can do to the best laid plans of mice and men. Opposition to wind turbines remains strong here in New England. In Rhode Island, where I live, there is ongoing opposition to a Liquid Natural Gas terminal in Mt. Hope Bay. More broadly, opposition is growing to hydrofracking of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and across the country. Large scale renewable energy projects are challenged by environmentalists (like the large scale solar project in California) and by parents (opposition to the construction of high-power transmission lines). In individual communities, wealthy homeowners fight the construction of wind turbines and solar panels.
Does anyone else see this? We live under the myth that there is a cheap source of energy without cost out there. Our gasoline, which we import mostly, must be defended by the Fifth Fleet (in Bahrain, where Shiites are rising up against the Sunni king) and heavily subsidized. The greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles are not without cost, as much as denialists would like to believe. Because we remain under the spell of the cheap energy myth, some of us remain willing to accept the costs of hydrofracking (water) and coal (see above quote). We compare the cost of renewable energy to the cost of natural gas and coal, and ignore the external costs, and say that renewable energy is too expensive. Unfortunately, our cheap energy is simply not sustainable.
If we were smart, we would realize that 1) there is no perfect, cheap, elixir out there. We need to take into account the external costs and start planning a smart, renewable energy future. We would also realize that 2) NIMBY is the enemy of planning a smart energy future. People want to plug in their laptop or their iron, and remain ignorant of where that power comes from and how it arrives at their outlet. People want their homes to be just the right temperature in the summer and winter, and not recognize the cost of doing so. People want to live in the suburbs, and commute long distances to work, to karate practice, to visit Disneyland. Yet, people get upset when a wind turbine goes up, or when talk of a new transmission line starts. NIMBY is simply not sustainable. If we truly understood the costs of the energy we use, we would use less of it, we would be much more efficient, we would plan for the long term instead of just one quarter ahead.
What do we need? We need a smart grid, decentralized power generation, a diverse mixture of renewable energy, state of the art nuclear power, and some fossil fuels, and above all else we need to place a price on carbon. Energy will not be cheap, but we fool ourselves if we believe it is cheap today. We need to embrace the future, instead of wishing we could return back to 1890. If we don’t of course, we will eventually fall out of the cheap energy spell, but we will start kicking ourselves for not recognizing it sooner.
I have logged five years of sea time underway (between 1998-2008); I have sailed across the Indian Ocean and Northern Pacific Ocean; I spent significant time in the Western Pacific toiling around the typhoon laden waters circa Okinawa and Guam; I know what heavy seas (up to 20ft) feel like, having traversed ships using the bulkheads to step on from time to time. I was always preternaturally calm in heavy seas, and I never took Dramamine. However, after reading Susan Casey’s book The Wave, I am newly aware of the great power that the sea has over man, the dangers that lurk in her, and the fears that rest in the heart of any merchant mariner worth their salt. Incredibly, Casey learns, two large oceangoing ships sink each week globally, but that never makes its way into the media. Like me, Casey is astonished:
“When I first read about the missing ships, I was astonished. In the high tech marine world of radar, EPIRB, GPS, and satellite surveillance, how could hundreds of enormous vessels just get swallowed up by the sea? And furthermore, how could this be happening without much media notice? Imagine the headlines if even a single 747 slipped off the map with all its passengers and was never heard from again?”
Casey examines extreme waves in all their forms, from rogue waves, to typhoons, to tsunamis. She speaks with wave scientists and big wave tow surfers, reads the Casualty Ledgers going back centuries at Lloyds of London, and discovers that there is still a lot we have to learn about how the ocean behaves, and how it will behave in the future as the planet warms. Already, storm intensity is increasing, and in some areas like the Northern Pacific, wave energy is increasing. Tsunamis, which can be as large as thousands of feet, are much more prevalent historically than we give them credit for. In fact, according to scientists like Bill McGuire, the impending rise in sea level is going to increase the weight load on the Earth’s crust, which will lead to more volcanic and seismic activity, which increases the likelihood of tsunamis and earthquakes.
Aboard a modern Destroyer, I felt confident out at sea with the knowledge that we would know of bad weather before we found ourselves in it. Not only were the warships I sailed on laden with communications technology and protected by constant weather alerts and voyage navigation updates, but the ships were designed to survive in rough weather. However, I wouldn’t feel so confident in a Bulk Carrier, what we used to refer to as a Group II Merchant. A rogue wave can sink those vessels in less than one minute, after water floods into their holds. Our modern, global economy is built to run through merchant ships. The recent increase in piracy near the Horn of Africa shone a spotlight on the critical cog of global trade, but the sea promises to play an even bigger role. But it is not just mariners and global companies who should worry about the power of the great waves; coastal residents, vulnerable to tsunamis and storm surges, should also be wary. Casey interviewed Lloyds of London’s senior executive Neil Roberts, a specialist in marine activity, and outlines their expectations:
“[Lloyds of London expects] not only snarlier oceans and elevated sea levels, but more hurricanes, windstorms, storm surges, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, and droughts – all affecting more people and more property… ships had it rough out there, and sure, the losses were astonishing, but even these were dwarfed by Lloyd’s nightmare scenario: a disaster impacting the eastern seaboard of the United States, where over eight trillion dollars’ worth of coastal property, 111 million people, and half the U.S. GDP would be exposed.”
One scenario, identified by McGuire, involves the volcanic collapse of the Canary Islands, which could produce a massive tsunami that could hit the east coast of the United States in about nine hours. The Wave is a timely examination of the power of the sea, one that I had trouble putting down at night.