The Energy Dilemma - Nathan Lewis- Caltech

by Ginosar  

Lecture by the famed Nathan S. Lewis of Caltech,

California Air resources Board- ARB  2/23/10

I just finished listening to today's (Tues.) video presentation by this well known Caltech professor on global energy needs in light of the limitation of global warming.

Because of the length I will present my notes in two parts, this is the first:

He expanded on his famous 2007 article in Caltech Engineering and Science  (volume LXX no.2). He emphasized the following very critical points:

The most important thing he warned us is:


We are discussing here scientific and engineering facts. Realistic way of looking at the global energy needs.

1. We will not run out of fossil fuels in the next hundred to 150 years.

2. The key problem is we must stop emitting any GHG before 2050 to limit serious damage to the global climate.

3. We do not know at what CO2 level the climate damage would be within acceptable limits, without catastrophic tipping points. The only thing we know that it was acceptable before the industrial revolution at 280 ppm. Even at the "ideal" limit at 350, we do not know the long term impacts.

4. We do know what GHG emissions would be too high and the GW impacts too severe, and likely to cause a "tipping point" change.  Perhaps the worst case of such an event would be the release of huge amounts of methane now sequestered in permafrost in the arctic.  The carbon release could be very large and the greenhouse warming effect could be immense, as a one ton of methane has as much warming effect as 20 tons of carbon dioxide

5. CO2 is nearly a non degradable gas. Three quarter of it may disappear in 500 years from the atmosphere by chemical reactions of by dissolve into the oceans (and the dissolving could cause such a change in pH (acidity) in the oceans that bad effects occur in the oceans, one being the disappearance of coral reefs, which are rich sources of food and growth for sealife that people depend on.  The rest will stay much longer. To have some modicum of safety we need to stop all GHG emissions by 2050.

6. It may take some 3,000 years to restore the global climate to pre industrial levels without any additional CO2 after 2050.

7. The amount of global energy use is so high, that we can not fathom it. It developed over a century and a half, spread around the globe, to build to current levels. We are facing dire situation, no time to reduce GHG in conventional economical ways, and too much GHG to replace with green energies.

At the approaches proposed to date, it is nearly impossible to replace global fossil and wood burning energies with non emitting sources to restrict the growth of GW in time to prevent catastrophic events.

8. The energy stored in fossil fuels is so dense, it takes immense amount of non-emitting power plants, such as one nuclear power plant a day for the next forty years to produce the equivalent global energy demands.

9. We do not have yet all the energy technology we need. We need at least to develop new, economical energy storage system.

10. Energy demand will increase since already we have 2 billion people without electricity. They want some electricity to live a better life. [Three additional billions will be added by 2050.]

11. Our rate of energy use is 13 trillion watts. Unfathomable amount. About a quarter of it in the US. China will surpass us in the not too distant future. India will add to the immense increases.

12. The US is wasting the largest amount of energy therefore it would be the easiest for us to decrease our energy intensity. Other countries can not cut their waste since the total use is negligible per person.

13. The US uses three times the per capita energy compare to Switzerland or Japan.

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