Scientific American’s Sustainable Future

Scientific American’s customer management is appalling. When I first subscribed to the print edition, the magazine’s online presence was trumpeted as one of the benefits. I therefore understood I would also obtain access to the Scientific American Digital (how quaint!). Nope. I got no more online access than I had previously and ended up paying a Scientific American Digital subscription on top of the print subscription. Someone should call the Advertising Standards Authority! (Annoyingly my online subscription has now expired, and, I see from the correspondence page – which publishes letters on topics in the edition, I kid you not, 4 months earlier, like we’re still in the 1950s – that I appear not to have received the July issue at all).

Just lately – in the midst of a UK postal strike – I can find no way to notify my address change or even log on at The site recognises none of the several numbers on the address labels of the magazines I’m sent. The contact email address simply doesn’t work. Mind-blowing. Scientists, eh? Hardly surprising there were dodgy solder-joints at the LHC, was it?

Nevertheless, I persist with Scientific American. It’s worth it for the quality of the articles. And, I have to say, its old-fashioned feel.

The lead article in the November issue is titled: “A Plan for a Sustainable Future”, by Mark Z Jacobson and Mark A Delucchi . It discusses how the entire world could be powered by wind, water and solar power by 2030. And it’s well worth a read.

The authors note that building “millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations” is not without precedent. For example, “during WWII the US retooled automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft”. For clean energy the numbers are feasible: the list includes 490,000 tidal turbines, 3,800,000 5MW wind turbines, 49,000 concentrated solar power (CSP) plants and 40,000 solar PV plants.

I’m afraid I have some quibbles:

  • The authors quote a US Energy Information Administration projection of 16.9TW of global energy demand in 2030, compared to 12.5TW now.  I suspect 16.9TW will prove to be a massive underestimate.  As well as a greater population and higher living standards, there’ll be new sources of demand in 20 years, for example, for large numbers of desalination plants to produce fresh water.  I’d be amazed if we aren’t using twice as much energy by 2030 as we are now.
  • On the other hand, ruling out wind and solar power production “in the open seas” is suspect: I would have thought there was a lot of scope to generate power there, e.g. on floating islands, which I’ve seen proposed, probably in Scientific American itself.
  • Nuclear power is dismissed because of the “carbon emissions” caused by “reactor construction and uranium mining and transport”, but no explanation is given as to why these activities couldn’t be powered by clean energy.
  • Interestingly, the authors are concerned about all forms of pollution, so rule out carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and biofuels on the grounds of air pollution other than CO2. I’d have liked to see at least a nod to the other problems with these primitive technologies: principally the difficulty of capturing all the CO2 in a coal-fired plant, the cost of burying the carbon and the risks; and, for biofuels, the land use problems – not just food vs fuel, but that the land would store carbon quicker if left alone!
  • I doubt that geothermal energy is “renewable”.  There may be a lot of it, but the rocks will reheat only very slowly.
  • The authors suggest that we deploy 1,700,000,000 – yeap, 1.7 billion – “rooftop photovoltaic systems”.  I think this is nuts.  First off, I’m really struggling with the numbers – the 0.003MW – or 3kW – size of each system must refer to average (mean) output to be consistent with the rest of the article.  But, according to my mate David MacKay (print edition, p.40), 20W/m2 is going some for solar PV in the sort of countries where there are a lot of roofs. So these systems would have to be 150m2 each. They have big roofs in America, I guess. But my more fundamental objection is that the output of 100,000 of these babies only adds up to 1, yes one, of the 40,000 PV power plants. What’s easier, do you think, fit solar panels on every roof in a medium-sized town, such as Southampton where I come from, or stick them all in a big field outside of town (perhaps a long way outside, like in North Africa, where funnily enough you need far fewer panels)? I’ll give you a clue: let’s be pessimistic and say it takes 1/2 hour to put a panel in a standardised array in a field and optimistically 2 days to put the scaffolding up so you can get on the roof without a health and safety violation – before you start the pretty much bespoke installation process. Barmy idea, isn’t it? I worry that the inclusion of the rooftop PVs owes more to some kind of philosophical belief in the virtues of localism than to sound scientific (or economic) reasoning. And of course the article concludes by advocating the dreaded feed-in tariffs. What better way of transferring money to those with big roofs from those, um, without big roofs?

Nevertheless, notwithstanding a few hints that it may be informed by countercultural ideology, I recommend taking a look at “A Path to Sustainability by 2030”.

But the November 2009 Scientific American is worth buying for another article alone. No, not more minute analysis of the “Hobbits of Indonesia” (not read that one yet, but – to go all Iain M Banks for a moment – does the obsessive human interest in the details of our family tree perhaps represent some kind of species-level insecurity?), but “The Rise of Vertical Farms” by Dickson Despommier. The author should perhaps have credited “The World Without Us“, but he makes the point that we should farm indoors and leave nature to absorb the excess carbon we’ve been stuffing into the atmosphere.

The key argument is that you can grow so much – so much less riskily too – in controlled climate conditions indoors: “4 growing seasons, double the plant density, and 2 [or more, surely, of many crops – judging by a photo I once saw in the Guardian of a hydroponic indoor vegetable farm in Tokyo] per floor”, so that, excusing the quaint American units, a “30-story building covering one city block [5 of these ‘acre’ things] could … produce 2,400 acres of food”!

Despommier worries about how his vision can be made to happen, but in fact it’s simple. As soon as a realistic price is put on ecosystem services, there’ll be a huge economic incentive to invest in “vertical farms”.