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Of Suns and Sands

Two energy-related news stories caught my eye last week precisely because of how different they were. 

Tad Segal, PresidentThe first was an update on when we would get a decision from the Obama Administration on the Keystone XL Pipeline: Any week now (which is what they’ve been saying for weeks now). 

The second was a much-less talked about piece in The New Yorker about the ongoing struggles of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) – or “Star in a Bottle” as the headline puts it.

We all know the backstory on the XL Pipeline (a fitting name given that the amount of carbon released from tapping into Canada’s tar sands would indeed be supersized).  Opening up this vast source of unconventional oil would have significant implications for climate change since tar sands (or “bituminous sands “ to be precise) require significantly more energy to extract, transport and process than conventional oil reserves; some estimates put this extra energy effort at 12 percent, but other estimates are far higher. 

Either way, it’s an XL dose of carbon into the atmosphere that would result from the development, transportation and consumption of these reserves. On the other hand, scientists working to build ITER say they’ve designed a “self-sustaining synthetic star” so advanced and powerful that it could literally power the planet with about as much carbon and radioactive waste as a single Toyota Prius. 

ITER is the closest thing to a perpetual motion machine as humans are likely to design – at least for the foreseeable future. New Yorker writer Raffi Khatchadourian captures the excitement behind this promise in this breathless paragraph describing how ITER will produce its magic: 

“No natural phenomenon on Earth will be hotter. Like the sun, the cloud will go nuclear. The zooming hydrogen atoms, in a state of extreme kinetic excitement, will slam into one another, fusing to form a new element—helium—and with each atomic coupling explosive energy will be released: intense heat, gamma rays, X rays, a torrential flux of fast-moving neutrons propelled in every direction. There isn’t a physical substance that could contain such a thing. Metals, plastics, ceramics, concrete, even pure diamond—all would be obliterated on contact, and so the machine will hold the superheated cloud in a “magnetic bottle,” using the largest system of superconducting magnets in the world. Just feet from the reactor’s core, the magnets will be cooled to two hundred and sixty-nine degrees below zero, nearly the temperature of deep space. Caught in the grip of their titanic forces, the artificial earthbound sun will be suspended, under tremendous pressure, in the pristine nothingness of ITER’s vacuum interior.” 

Cool!  I want one of those! Of course there’s only a slight problem with ITER:  It doesn’t exist yet.  Well, actually there’s a bigger problem, which is that it’s being designed by committee, built in France and overseen by the Japanese.  

Hmm, not exactly a recipe for success, but at least the wine will be good. Still, there has been and continues to be a huge international investment into ITER, and it’s conceivable that it will one day be built and proceed to save the planet.   The inverse odds and consequences for the climate apply to the building of the Keystone XL Pipeline – it’s hard to imagine that it won’t be built at some point either by this President or the next (and the situation in Ukraine only ups the odds here).

Following climate and energy news on a daily basis is a little like watching glaciers in action: We know what’s going on is having major impacts on the landscape we care about, but we don’t expect to live long enough to see how things turn out.  Yet these are two stories whose end chapters I actually expect to read in my lifetime.

To some degree, the XL Pipeline is the Willy Loman of energy stories.  As a viable energy source that can support us, it’s a complete failure - long past its heyday and still clinging desperately and sadly to its faded glory and empty promises of a bright future. ITER, on the other hand, feels more like Back to the Future.  Can we really build a flux capacitor… and in France?

Which leaves me with this:  Between these two extremes lie countless choices about what energy sources we choose to use today, how we harness efficiency, and what regulations we put into place.  Of course, we have to continue to push for cleaner sources of energy, which means fighting Keystone.  And we absolutely need solutions like those envisioned by ITER.  But putting all of our focus on fighting XL or building ITER means we’ll miss the opportunities that exist right now to make a real difference for the future. Hey, McFly, the jungle is dark but full of diamonds.

Tad Segal, President 

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