Memoirs of a Boffin

Chapter 16: Energy and Environment

I think it was in the summer of 1980 that Arthur Porter approached me to help him with the environmental side of the Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning (the Porter Commission), of which he was head. Arthur, a fellow Lancastrian, was a post-graduate fellow in the Physics Department at Manchester University when I arrived there in 1936. He worked with Douglas Hartree. They were pioneers of mechanical computing and their huge Differential Analyser, housed in a special room in the Physics building, was a wonder to behold.

Arthur and I were at separate radar research establishments in Malvern, Worcestershire during the War and like me he had close relationships with Ferranti Ltd. which resulted in his joining the Company and setting up an activity in Canada to create the brilliant but ill-fated DATAR project for the Canadian Navy. He and I had worked together on the (federal) Royal Commission on Government Organization, in 1960. In 2004, at the age of 93, Arthur has published his memoirs entitled So Many Hills to Climb [1]. We are now (2005) often on the telephone marvelling at our nearly parallel lives which touched briefly, from time to time, but unfortunately rarely put us in the same place at the same time.

Arthur Porter’s autobiographical memoirs

The Porter Commission had been going for almost five years by the time Arthur approached me and was only about four months from the deadline for the final report. For some reason, the work towards Volume 6 of the Report, on the environmental and health effects of electric power generation, had not been productive up to that time. Arthur was now faced with the task of finding someone who would produce this Volume of the Report in the remaining four months of the two years in the schedule.

Arthur Porter is a very persuasive man, as well as being a cherished friend. I felt I couldn’t let him down so I undertook to do it. Rarely, since the war, had I worked so intensively for so long. I accumulated masses of reference papers and books, searched computer data files and, somehow, came up with a 60,000 word Volume 6 on schedule, with the invaluable cooperation of another independent consultant, Chris Haussman.

I had been a member of the environmental committees of OECD and NATO when they were first formed in the ’60s. But I had never been involved in serious work related to the environmental effects of the production and use of energy before this time. It was something of a revelation. As I studied all the latest scientific papers (because Volume 6 was, of course to be a review of scientific results as they apply to conditions in Ontario), I realized more and more the incredible extent of the damage to environment and health that was being caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Yet the damage is so spread out over the whole country – indeed the whole world – that few were noticing its magnitude. The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl horrified the world. Yet in the United States, for instance, which is a heavy coal-burning country, the premature deaths each year due directly or indirectly to coal are estimated to be the equivalent of something like several Chernobyls, the crash of 100 jumbo jets or the sinking of a dozen or so cruise ships.

Most of the deaths from coal are due to respiratory diseases and cancer, induced by the emissions from the smoke-stacks – acid rain as we now call it – plus some carcinogenic solids in the atmosphere. But the enormous damage to people, lakes and forests due to these emissions may be insignificant in the long term compared with the insidious, cumulative and practically irreversible “greenhouse effect” that is continuously intensified by the stupendous quantity of carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere at the same time.

Short of nuclear holocaust, the man-made changes in the Earth’s atmosphere due to the excessive burning of coal, oil, gas, wood and garbage probably pose one of the severest threats to the future of civilized life on Earth. The six billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels every year are now causing disturbing changes in the global climate. The effect is cumulative and the only way of reducing it is to reduce by a large factor the burning of coal and oil all over the world. The prospect is a climatic, economic and political nightmare. That is why politicians prefer not to address the problem if they can possibly avoid it.

It is generally agreed by scientists that we are already committed to at least a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 within the next thirty years or so. That would increase the mean temperature of the Earth by some 2 to 4 degrees Celsius, cause substantial climate change, widespread coastal flooding and increase the probability of extreme and unusual weather conditions world wide. If the consumption of fossil fuels were to remain constant, or grow, the world would inevitably face a trebling, quadrupling and so on of the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. There is little doubt that the associated effects would be catastrophic.

Moreover there is increasing evidence that the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is now increasing faster than can be explained by the rate of emission of CO2. Arctic ice is melting at an accelerating rate producing changes in the ability of the sea to absorb CO2. Consequently catastrophic climate change might occur much earlier than formerly predicted.

In order to mitigate the effects of global warming, it would be necessary to start a drastic reduction of fossil-fuel consumption on a world-wide basis. A reduction of 3% per annum, starting immediately would be the minimum to achieve an appreciable effect by the middle of the century. The total annual world consumption of energy is about 8 billion tonnes of coal equivalent or 8 million megawatts of electric power. Of this about 20% is actually coal, 30% is oil, 35% gas and only 14% non-fossil. So a reduction of 2% per annum would imply the conversion of about 150,000 megawatts of power from fossil to non-fossil operation every year. That is the equivalent of 150 average power stations a year.

That amount of reduction is, of course the average over all countries and all sectors: electric power production, industrial and domestic heating and, especially, transportation. In view of the rapid growth of energy consumption in China, India and the needs of other developing countries, the probability of achieving this kind of reduction does not appear to be great. China has just announced (2005) that it will build 500 new coal-burning power stations in the next 20 years. Even if all 28 signatories of the Kyoto Protocol meet their targets (and the probability of that is zero) the effect on the growth of emissions will hardly be detectable. That is only partly because China, India and the USA are outside the loop and rapidly increasing their use of coal.

I have written about the global energy situation several times in the past 30 years, recently with a friend Buzz Nixon. In 1999 we published an article entitled “The Energy Juggernaut” which used an illustration I had been playing with for some time to impress on people the magnitude of the problems we face.

Back in the 1970s I had given presentations to the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome calling attention to the transitory nature of the fossil-fuel age – the fact that the world is fast running out of fossil fuels – first oil, then gas and finally coal. It was in 1940 that Hubbert pointed out that the fossil-fuel age was merely a brief ‘spike’ on the axis of time [2]. I decided to quantify Hubbert’s spike as far as possible using the latest data from IIASA and the international energy agencies. The result is the diagram shown here.

Energy Consumption vs the estimated lifetime of fossil fuels

While the fossil-fuel curve is idealized and fitted to the available consumption data, it is nevertheless quantitative. Its content represents the total known accessible resources of gas, oil and coal according to the 1999 statistics provided by the international agencies named.

The solid lines represent the IIASA/IEA data for the growth of fossil fuel consumption over the years to date and projected by them to the year 2020. What goes up must come down and the dotted bell curve is an idealized but quantitative representation of how the use of fossil fuels might progress from now on. The bell curve was chosen to provide the gentlest let-down possible. Its content is the IIASA/IEA 1999 estimate [3] of the total available gas, oil and coal supplies, expressed in Quadrillion BTUs of generated energy (Quads for short). The height and width of the bell curve were determined by matching the rising slope to that of the solid curves and sliding it along the time axis to fit. Because the area is given, there is only one solution that fits the data – the unique solution shown. I now believe the global demand will inevitably overshoot the 700 Quad level, thus increasing the probability of a rapid, catastrophic descent which could easily result in a state of anarchy among the leading consumers. This will occur in three stages (oil, gas and coal) if sufficient anarchy is not triggered by the first stage – the shortage of oil.

One Quad is a lot of energy. It is roughly equivalent to the energy produced by 33 one-Gigawatt power stations in one year. One Quad is approximately the amount of energy obtained from each of the following:

  • 36 million tonnes of coal (400,000 rail cars).

  • 24 million tonnes of oil (167 million barrels).

  • 28 billion cubic metres of natural gas.

  • 33 standard (1 gigawatt) electric power stations in one year (coincidentally, the number in Ontario).

  • 600 km2 aggregate surface area of 10% efficient photoelectric solar collectors at sea level in clear conditions in one year.

  • 33,000 1 MW strategically placed windmills operating at peak level for one year.

No allowance is made for transmission or conversion efficiency beyond the point of generation, or for cloudy (solar) or calm (wind) conditions.

A reduction of fossil fuels by 1 Quad (e.g. replacing about 33 coal-fired power stations by 33 nuclear stations in one year) is too small a change to make a noticeable difference in the above diagram which shows that consumption of fossil fuels is currently rising at the rate of 22 Quads/year.

The sheer magnitude and momentum of the Energy Juggernaut [4] is difficult to comprehend and seems to be ill-understood or deliberately ignored by national decision makers everywhere. The puny efforts of the Kyoto Accord pale into insignificance beside these figures. The question mark on the diagram speaks for itself. How can we ever fill a hole as big as that?

So there are overwhelming reasons to substitute non-polluting alternative sources of energy for coal and oil as quickly as we can. In the time available there is not a lot of choice. On the scale we are talking about, minor, but useful increases can be made by exploiting the last available hydroelectric sources. Not much more can be expected from solar installations for a long time, because they use so much material and construction that they consume energy rather than provide it in the first few years. The only technology that is ready for production on an appropriate scale is nuclear . I believe wind energy may make a significant and useful contribution in some places at the expense of visual and noise pollution over thousands of square kilometres of land and water. But, when examined on the global scale it can never be a rational answer to fossil-fuel depletion.

An article by George Monbiot in The Guardian Weekly sums up the situation in the following way:

“Wind farms, though necessary, are a classic example of what environmentalists call an “end-of-the-pipe solution”. Instead of tackling the problem – our massive demand for energy at source, they provide less damaging means of accommodating it. Or part of it. The Whinash project (a large controversial wind farm project in the English Lake District, Ed.), by replacing energy generation from power stations burning fossil fuel, will reduce carbon dioxide emission by 178,000 tonnes a year. This is impressive, until you discover that a single jumbo jet, flying from London to Miami and back every day, releases the climate change equivalent of 520,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. One daily connection between Britain and Florida costs three giant wind farms”.

“An Ugly Face of Ecology”, George Monbiot, Guardian Weekly, May 6-12 2005.

The rational answer to fossil-fuel depletion is inevitably nuclear power. Nuclear energy is clean in normal operation and is as safe as man cares to make it. However an expansion at the needed rate may mean an eventual transition to breeder reactors in order to conserve uranium. Few governments have faced the prospect of such a transition. Even the development of reliable, safe conventional nuclear power has been sadly inhibited by the efforts of anti-nuclear groups. The case for nuclear energy has been elegantly and convincingly made by Umberto Columbo, a distinguished member of the Club of Rome, in a discussion paper (1995) [5]. He sees, as I do, that the widespread development and use of nuclear power is essential and inevitable so we might as well concentrate on doing it safely and professionally well as it represents the main hope of replacing fossil fuels cleanly and in time.

It will be the ultimate irony if the ‘green’ protesters against nuclear power cause the collapse of the industrial society and the end of civilized life on Earth.

Even if most of the world’s electricity is produced from nuclear power and renewable sources, the problem of mobile fuels to replace polluting gasoline and oil remains. Hydrogenis the ultimate portable fuel, with methanol and natural gas as substitutes in the transition period. When hydrogen burns in air, the by-product is simply water. A well-managed nuclear-hydrogen-electric economy poses no threat to the ecosphere. In spite of all the attendant difficulties, this should be the long-term goal of Canada and the world. It is the principal available option once fossil fuels are abandoned for environmental reasons or the supply is exhausted.

Hydrogenresearch depends a great deal on electrochemistry, a discipline in which Canada was extremely weak in numbers, albeit having a handful of brilliant electrochemists at the time we wrote the report for government in the late ’70s. It proposed the establishment of an institute of electrochemistry and hydrogen research. The advice was eventually followed rather half-heartedly by the Trudeau government. It seemed to me that the Institute could have been suitably located either in Sheridan Park (an industrial research park in Mississauga, near Toronto) or at the AECL Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Chalk River, Ontario. The latter site would have been ideal because Chalk River had a strong electrochemistry group related to its work on the purification of heavy water.

In the event, the government made the decision to locate the establishment in Jean Chrétien’s riding of Chicoutimi, Québec. That was shortly before the Liberals lost the election. As soon as the Mulroney government came in they effectively withdrew support from the project as it had been envisaged, even though the buildings were virtually complete. Political manoeuvering of this kind at the expense of science does immense damage to Canada. It is only one of many such examples and they are not limited to one political party.

After writing Volume 6 of the Ontario Royal Commission Report on the environmental consequences of energy production, I seemed to be regarded as something of an expert on the subject and appeared at hearings in Vancouver and in Toronto. Soon afterwards, in 1981, I was approached by the National Research Council to provide a Secretariat for the International Energy Agency Executive Committee on Hydrogen. Dr J. Bryan Taylor, of NRC, had been elected Chairman of that Committee and it was therefore Canada’s turn to manage the Committee affairs by providing a Secretariat that, while not full-time, was available at all times. This fitted in nicely with my ‘retirement’ plans to cut down involvement in the consulting company. It also provided some further opportunities for travel.

The Committee had members from about ten countries, including the United States, West Germany and Japan and the Commission of European Communities. It sponsored a number of cooperative research projects concerned with the production of hydrogen and, later, hydrogen storage, conversion and safety. The main emphasis was the production of hydrogen from water by electrolysis – that is to say by passing an electric current through it. However there were also thermochemical projects related to the direct use of solar energy for hydrogen production.

One of the virtues of this Committee, from my point of view was that most of its members were scientists who were not only among the world’s leading experts in the subject but who held influential positions in the scientific structure of their own countries. This was true of the Canadian Chairman, Bryan Taylor, who was head of the energy activities in the National Research Council. The other Canadian member was A.K. (Sandy) Stuart, the President of the Electrolyser Corporation which is one of the world’s leading designers of electrolysers for hydrogen production.

A World Hydrogen Energy Conference was held every two years to review progress in hydrogen technology. The 1984 Conference was held in Toronto. From the Canadian point of view it was an upbeat affair. It was chaired by Bryan Taylor, with the organization in the capable hands of Richard Champagne of the Hydrogen Industry Council. The Canadian research effort was praised by delegates from Japan and the United States and Canada was referred to as “a world leader” in the field. It was not to last. One of the first acts of the new Mulroney government was to decimate the funding for research on solar energy and hydrogen. The hydrogen research program in the National Research Council was terminated. Bryan Taylor, the kingpin of the hydrogen energy research program, left NRC for a job in the battery industry on the West coast. In abandoning its research role, in the mid-80s, Canada threatened to become a nonentity in international hydrogen circles. In contrast, Germany, Japan and Sweden inter alia have greatly intensified their support of hydrogen research in recent years. Almost two decades were to be lost before the resurgence of interest in hydrogen in the early years of the new millenium.

Canada managed the IEA Executive Committee on Hydrogen for about six years in the 1980s, following which the Chairmanship and the Secretariat became the responsibility of Sweden. I confess I miss the IEA meetings in Paris, Vienna, Stockholm, etc, for the same reason that I am nostalgic about the days in OECD and NATO. There is something uniquely rewarding about the international fellowship that is developed. I miss the friends I made and I like to think they miss me. But I regret most of all that my years of work for that Committee have not led Canada any nearer to the hydrogen-electric economy so capably described in an excellent 1987 report by David Scott [6]. Like most far-sighted rational proposals, it was comprehensively ignored by the Canadian government that commissioned it.

In 1994, a particularly nasty internecine struggle broke out in the Canadian hydrogen community, ostensibly over the question of hosting a year 2000 successor to the 1984 WHEC Conference in Toronto, but with much deeper implications. Arguments between Canadians in an international forum made this struggle painfully visible to the rest of the world. As a result, the acceptance of Canada as the host country in the year 2000 was placed in jeopardy and the hydrogen community was divided. In the event, Canada lost out.

In spite of setbacks, there is still a very good argument for Canada to set its sights on a hydrogen-electric future. A future in which most or all of its electricity is generated by non-fossil means, mainly hydro and nuclear; where automobiles and trucks use hydrogen as their fuel; where most inter-city freight and passenger traffic is electrically driven by rail and where the larger cities have electrically driven high-speed commuter rail services. There is even an argument for generating an excess of electricity over Canada’s requirements and exporting it to the United States and Europe. The U.S. uses so much coal and oil that a ‘clean’ kilowatt exported from Canada would replace a ‘dirty’ kilowatt generated there. Europe is close to the time when the importation of nuclear-electrically produced liquid hydrogen (LH2) would be economically feasible. Such initiatives would put Canada on the credit side of the global environmental equation. In this way we could set an example to the world.

If Canada had this long-term future in its sights, it would have to reverse its anti-nuclear stance and take a positive attitude to all hydro-electric and nuclear developments in the North. There is a risk that narrowly-focused protests, by delaying or obstructing the rational development of hydroelectric and nuclear power, will cause much more damage to the environment globally than they obviate parochially. History might eventually reveal that the anti-nuke and anti-hydro protesters were among the greatest threats to the future of mankind.

1. So Many Hills to Climb Arthur Porter, 2004. The Beckham Publication Group, Silver Spring MD.

2. See p.189 of “The Challenge of Man’s Future” by Harrison Brown. Viking/Compass 1956.

3. “Global Energy Perspectives”, IIASA/World Energy Council; Cambridge 1999.

4. “The Energy Juggernaut”, C.R. Nixon and J.R. Whitehead, CACOR Proceedings 2.2. Autumn 1999.

5. On Nuclear Power, Umberto Colombo. CACOR Proceedings 1.15 Sept. 1995.

6. Hydrogen: National Mission for Canada, Advisory Group on Hydrogen Opportunities, 1987.