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Alumni Newsletter: July '08 to July '09


AN INTERVIEW WITH JIM CONCA, ScB '79

Doctors Jim Conca (photo left*) and Judith Wright recently published a book, The GeoPolitics of Energy: Achieving a Just and Sustainable Energy Distribution by 2040, that maps out a path for the world to an equitable and renewable energy distribution.  Since 2040 isn’t that far off and energy policies are being hotly debated on Capitol Hill, now might be a good time to discuss our energy dilemma. Newsletter editor Ruth Crane conducted the following interview with Dr. Conca:

Ruth Crane: Jim, how would you characterize America’s energy debate?

Jim Conca: Anemic. Although it’s nice to see commercials portraying cool-looking wind turbines, solar arrays and biofuel production, politicians, the public and scientists are not discussing the real drivers, hurdles and underlying issues that are determining where this world will end up with respect to energy production and use. These are generally not scientific. And not as much fun to discuss as new technologies and global warming. But the real issues are ethical and economic.

RC: How do you mean?

JC: Take China. Their over 1,000 coal-fired power plants are generally seen as horrible for the environment and for the health of their citizens. They have surpassed the United States in CO2 emissions; last year alone, the Chinese Ministry of Health estimated over 300,000 deaths from upper respiratory effects of coal particulates; China’s acid rain problem dwarfs what the North America ever had, and environmental pollution in China from coal mining is extreme. Yet, the energy from those power plants has lifted over 500 million people up out of crushing poverty. It is hard to ignore that.

RC: But what about other energy sources?

JC: Yes, there are many, but their growth is exponential like anything else. Take wind as an example.  Worldwide we need well over 1 million 3+ MW turbines to help renewables reach their third of the energy pie.  If we push very hard now, between now and 2020 we will probably be able to install 50,000 or so, a huge increase but nowhere near the three trillion kWhr range it needs to be.  However, by 2020 this will have had the effect of cementing the work force development, manufacturing and resource base, worked out the siting and regulatory kinks so that between 2020 and 2030 you can build several hundred thousand, and then between 2030 and 2040, you can build a million. 

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This type of exponential growth curve governs all nascent sources, as well as resurging ones like nuclear.  Worldwide, we need 1700 GenerationIII 1,000+ MW reactors by 2040, but few will be built by 2020.  But even if only 50 to 100 are built, that will develop the capability to build several hundred between 2020 and 2030, and then a thousand between 2030 and 2040. Even now, three other forgers are slated to come online within 5 years to supplant Japan Ironworks monopoly on large-piece forging, one of the bottlenecks in nuclear construction.

At the same time, traditional sources, applications and equipment will have to die their natural deaths, not be prematurely killed.  No one is going to shut down a modern, working coal-fired power plant, it will be allowed to run out its natural life span of 60 to 70 years. Similarly, when we do develop an efficient, fully-electric plug-in vehicle to replace 80% of our transport needs (we will always need about 20% liquid fuel for long-hauling, jet fuel and battle vehicles), it will take about 30 years for 800 million traditional vehicles to die off and be replaced by these new ones.  Again, an exponential rise in efficient systems paralleled by an exponential fall in old ones is the natural path we always follow. This is how every innovation in history has occurred; it takes over a generation.

Now compare this with coal in China. China is installing 350 billion kWhrs of coal production per year. That’s more than all non-hydro renewables that have been installed worldwide in the last 30 years. A similar but slower rate is occurring in India. The outpacing of alternatives by coal is staggering, and will not abate soon.

RC: Why is this?

JC: Because energy is necessary for survival. A human needs about 3,000 kWhrs per year to achieve what we consider a good life, including a belief that you will live to age 40 and that your children will live to age 40. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 17th century nobleman getting the equivalent of 3,100 kWhrs per year off the backs of 15 indentured servants and slaves with 10 beasts of burden, or everyone reading this newsletter who averages about 10,000 kWhrs per year off the back of fossil fuel with a little hydro and nuclear. You need about 3,000 kWhrs per person per year to end global poverty, war and terrorism.

RC: That’s a lot of energy.

JC: Yes, about 30 trillion kWhrs per year by 2040.

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RC: Can increased conservation and efficiency help?

JC: Absolutely. Trimming the per person consumption in the industrialized world from 10,000 kWhrs to 6,000 kWhrs, as Europe and Japan are doing, would save 4 trillion kWhrs per year from of our present 15 trillion worldwide. But there are only a billion people in this subgroup. The four billion that are below 1,000 kWhrs per year don’t have any energy to conserve. They don’t have bulbs to replace with compact fluorescence, they don’t have cars to trade in for hybrid-electrics, they just need energy. 12 trillion kWhrs per year. And the 3 billion that will be born between now and 2040 will need another 9 trillion kWhrs per year. Unless renewables and Gen III nuclear dramatically increase to cover two-thirds of that, coal will more than double. This is not a nice scenario, and is not what anyone in the United States ever talks about.

RC: What’s so special about 2040?

JC: It’s a point when many of the tipping points and global pressures reach a peak: resource and raw materials scarcity, precipitous loss of biodiversity, significant climate change, maximum population density. Most projections show that if dramatic change does not occur in the first half of this century, don’t bother. That is the time pressure most of us feel. Coupled with the exponential growth and decay of these large systems, the next ten years are critical beyond anything in history.

RC: Wow, do we just give up?

JC: Definitely not! Humans are amazing, but we don’t have time for nonsense. We’re good at rational thought (and Judith and I agree that the geological sciences are the best training for global long-term thinking), But it is taking too long to erase myths that hold us back. Like the idea of bigger is better, the ethanol debacle, the irrational fear of nuclear energy, the lack of concern over consequences beyond our lives or beyond our borders. These hinder us from laying the foundation of a truly sustainable and just future. Our brains got us far, got us into this mess, and can get us out. It’s what gives me hope in this new Administration, that science and rational thought are more important than ideology. We have about ten years to do this. I think we can.

Biography: Jim Conca is the Director of the New Mexico State University Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC), a radiochemistry facility dedicated to environmental monitoring and mitigation of radioactive materials, and the development of sustainable energy distributions.  Conca obtained a Ph.D. in Geochemistry, and a Masters in Planetary Science, from the California Institute of Technology. He received a BS in Geology/Biology from Brown University in 1979.  He came to NMSU from Los Alamos National Laboratory where he was Project Leader for Radionuclide Geochemistry.  Before that, Conca was on the faculty at Washington State University, was President of UFA Ventures, Inc, and a consultant for DOE, DoD, EPA, USGS and private industry.

*photo courtesy of Cliff Stroud

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