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Articles by Peter Montague

Peter Montague is the executive director of the Environmental Research Foundation.

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Vaclav Smil is a historian of technical advances — particularly in the field of energy — and a Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada. Over the years, Smil has written more than 25 books and many dozens of articles. In recent years he has been examining human uses of energy over past millennia. As Smil says [PDF], “My firm belief is that looking far ahead is done most profitably by looking far back.”

His first conclusion [PDF] is that energy systems change very slowly. The modern world today relies on machines that were invented in the 1880s — the steam turbine, the internal combustion engine, plus thermal and hydropower for making electricity. These were supplemented in the 1930s and ’40s by gas turbines and nuclear fission power. The photovoltaic solar cell for converting sunlight directly into electricity was theorized in 1839 but not actually created until 1954 — and today, 54 years later, solar photovoltaic power remains a minuscule contributor to the world’s energy needs.

From the stone age until the 1890s, humans relied mainly on biofuels. But Smil examines carefully, then dismisses, th... Read more

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  • CTL fuels: still a bad idea

    As the price of oil rises, coal company executives smell a huge opportunity: they are planning to ramp up a new global industry to turn coal into liquid fuels (diesel, kerosene and jet fuel), plus basic feedstocks for the chemical industry to make plastics, fertilizers, solvents, pesticides, and more. The coal-to-chemicals industry is already going gangbusters in China.

    U.S. coal companies like Peabody and Arch plan to combine well-known coal-to-liquids technology and rapidly-evolving coal-to-chemicals technologies with untested methods of capturing carbon dioxide (or CO2, the main global-warming gas), compressing it into a liquid, and injecting it a mile below ground, hoping it will stay there forever. (Burying CO2 is called "carbon capture and storage," or CCS.) If coal executives succeed in convincing the public to pay for all this, low-carbon renewable energy systems and waste-free "green chemistry" will be sidelined for decades to come.

    The coal industry has nearly universal support in Congress. During President Bush's 2008 State of the Union address, one of the few lines that drew enthusiastic applause was, "Let us fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions." A few days later, the president announced his latest budget, with $648 million in taxpayer subsidies for "clean coal." A few days after that, the government announced it was ending its participation in the nation's first "clean coal" demonstration, the Futuregen project in Mattoon, Illinois. Obviously, Washington is experiencing policy angst over global warming, and "clean coal" lies at the heart of the debate. Both coal-to-liquids and coal-to-chemicals depend entirely on carbon burial being possible, affordable, and convincingly safe and permanent.

    Despite political support in Congress, "coal-to-liquid fuels" had its coming-out party earlier this year, and it did not go well. Here's the story: