Clean Energy: What’s Your Bad Movie Scenario?

Thanks to the always thought-provoking Marginal Revolution website, I ran across an article about how to solve all of America’s energy issues with one giant mega-project: tap into the geothermal energy that is sizzling away under the Yellowstone “caldera”–which is the area left behind after a volcanic eruption. Or in the case of the Yellowstone caldera, it’s thought to be the aftermath of three gigantic eruptions that happened over the last 2 million years or so, with the most recent eruption perhaps 700,000 years ago. Thomas F. Arciuolo and Miad Faezipour  describe their proposal in “Yellowstone Caldera Volcanic Power Generation Facility: A new engineering approach for harvesting emission-free green volcanic energy on a national scale” (Renewable Energy, October 2022, Pages 415-425). The abstract sums it up:

The USA is confronted with three epic-size problems: (1) the need for production of energy on a scale that meets the current and future needs of the nation, (2) the need to confront the climate crisis head-on by only producing renewable, green energy, that is 100% emission-free, and (3) the need to forever forestall the eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano. This paper offers both a provable practical, novel solution, and a thought experiment, to simultaneously solve all of the above stated problems. Through a new copper-based engineering approach on an unprecedented scale, this paper proposes a safe means to draw up the mighty energy reserve of the Yellowstone Supervolcano from within the Earth, to superheat steam for spinning turbines at sufficient speed and on a sufficient scale, in order to power the entire USA. The proposed, single, multi-redundant facility utilizes the star topology in a grid array pattern to accomplish this. Over time, bleed-off of sufficient energy could potentially forestall this Supervolcano from ever erupting again. 

When I have mentioned this article to people in the last week or so, the usual response is that they start chuckling, and then say something like: “I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that movie!” You know, pretty much any movie where science or industry tinkers with planet earth and a volcanic eruption results.

But of course, the fact that there is a possible disaster scenario, suitable for special effects, doesn’t mean that an idea is a bad one. Indeed, it seems to me that pretty much all the clean energy scenarios can be turned into bad movies.

For example, if the US had followed the example of France and gone on a binge of building nuclear power plants back in the 1970s, maybe 80% of US electricity today would be coming from non-carbon sources, as it does in France. But nuclear power plants everywhere are another bad movie scenario, right?

There are proposals for “geoengineering” by putting particulates into the atmosphere in a way that would offset the effects of carbon emissions. But the possible unintended consequences of such a policy are yet another bad movie scenario.

There are proposals for full “electrification” of the US economy, run largely by renewable energy sources like wind and solar. But if such policies are going to replace fossil fuels, it will face movie scenarios of its own. Existing solar- and wind-power equipment will need to be multiplied many times over, and will take up vast swaths of land when installed. We will need to greatly expand and update the electrical grid. We will need to invent methods of mass storage of electricity for times that are dark or windless. The two possible storage technologies at present seem to be giant battery farms or giant facilities for hydrogen storage–neither of which is currently viable at large scale and both of which have safety hazards of their own. Many of these steps will require dramatic expansions of mining for materials like copper to lithium for raw materials, energy-intensive manufacturing, and methods to deal with the resulting waste products. Movie scripts ranging from the heart-tugging to the catastrophic can be written about these policies, too.

And of course, not taking any of these steps runs the risks of its own bad movie scenario. In the short and medium run, burning fossil fuel for energy both adds to conventional air pollutants that are one of the major health risks worldwide, as well as sometimes causing localized environmental disasters. Then in the long-run, it turns out that the true pessimists about risks of climate change turn out to have been right all along, and the earth experiences devastating shifts in sea levels, weather patterns, and temperature.

When weighed against the costs and tradeoffs of other potential disaster scenarios, the idea of tapping into the geothermal energy around the Yellowstone caldera starts to sound more plausible. Perhaps more to the point, there is no gentle transition to non-carbon energy sources, where it all happens with some tax credits for solar panels and electric cars and a dose of back-slapping good feeling. If the shift to noncarbon energy is going to happen within a few decades, it will involve truly dramatic changes in energy production and transmission, changes that have their own costs and environmental risks, both in the US and around the world. You have to choose which bad-movie scenario you prefer.