12 June 2023

Waste heat and a high energy society

 A friend commented to my recent post on stationary batteries that we all need to learn to use less electricity. I don't think this is right, but there is some truth in it, or at least it is an issue. Few think about the issue of waste heat, but we actually are in the ballpark where this is part of the problem, and it's not going to go away. We have to find optimum, including with regard to maximum human populations, and make that the sustainable standard. Here's part of what I said in response (edited slightly): 

I don't believe less electricity is the main issue or the essence of a truly long term solution. There's nothing wrong in principle with a high energy society (literally). It's whether the energy is sustainable. Of course, way down the road, there's the issue of waste heat, which represents (I'm told) a lower threshold of sustainability than is frequently assumed. Even for purely physical reasons (as opposed to spiritual, esthetic, psychological, or other human concerns), there is a limit to how much high grade (low entropy) energy we can generate and dissipate in the atmosphere as waste heat before the capacity of the planet to radiate the heat into space without continual temperature increase is exceeded. A guess is that even from this point of view a global population of 20 billion people using energy, even all renewable energy, at the level now prevalent in the West, China, Korea and Japan, is unsustainable. In times short by geological standards, the oceans would boil. So we have to figure out how to find and stay with what is optimal. 

I've been saying for years though, and I think it's true, that we as a species have committed to high technology. There is no going back, and the future that entails the most meaningful life and least suffering and death is a high-but-sustainable energy society. We will not achieve optimum only or even mostly through conservation, but mainly through learning to develop energy resources that are not slowly killing the world we live on. The good news is that it is increasingly clear that this is quite possible: the issue is political. Can we wise up fast enough to commit to the changes and efforts necessary to make this happen, in time? No one knows, but it sure seems likely there will be some rough going during this critical century. 

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