Environmental Studies Faculty Research Seminar w/Martin Hoffert

'Is a High-Tech Civilization Sustainable? An Energy Revolution for the 21st Century'

Martin Hoffert
Emeritus Professor of Physics, New York University

Tuesday, October 20, 2009
12:30pm – 2:00pm

From a cosmic perspective our "energy hog" economy of > 6 billion humanoids running on nonrenewable energy stores is a prescription for a brief, if bright, "firefly" civilization: Rapidly depleting coal, oil & gas resources are concentrated solar power stores created over hundreds of millions of millions of years.  Near-peak oil and gas extraction rates are driving a shift to somewhat more abundant coal; with several new conventional coal-fired electric power plants built every week by China, India and the US. But coal's global warming and other adverse environmental impacts threaten the very hi-tech civilization it powers.  Most nations accept, in principle, the goal of reducing fossil fuel CO2 emissions 20% by 2020 and 80% by mid-century to keep global warming < 2 degrees Celsius. More warming could trigger irreversible polar cap melting and worldwide inundation of coastal zones. This implies an effective phaseout of fossil fuel emissions by 2050 -- even as 2-3%/year global GDP growth implies a primary power demand increase of 200-300%, and even assuming aggressive & continuing increase in energy end-use efficiency.  Colleagues and I have shown that technologies to accomplish this cost-effectively do not yet exist -- not even close.  Avoiding the worse scenarios of global warming implies urgent & revolutionary transformations of the global energy system to carbon-neutral sustainable ones. Colleagues and I have urged Congress and this Administration to authorize and staff with extraordinarily talented leaders and program managers a series of "Apollo-like" government-funded energy tech research, development, demonstration and deployment initiatives, perhaps starting with the new ARPA-E (for energy) agency reporting to the Secretary of Energy.  All three classes of carbon-neutral primary power generation technology face major uncertainties that need to be addressed promptly in parallel: (1) coal gasifier integrated combined cycle power plants with CO2 capture and storage (CCS); (2) "green nukes;" and (3) renewable energy, primarily solar and wind, including particularly energy storage and transmission.  Potential solutions and research to address them will be discussed, as will be technology-development for energy efficient buildings and communities; and carbon-neutral transportation by trains, cars, trucks and aircraft.  Climate/energy presents a unique existential challenge to our hi-tech civilization which runs on energy the way the Roman Empire ran on slavery. Engineering solutions to are a necessary condition for solving this problem; and though we could be, we are, so far, nowhere near on-track politically and policy-wise to addressing them effectively in  public or entrepreneurial private sectors.

MARTY HOFFERT is professor emeritus and former chair of the department of applied science at New York University. His academic background includes a B.S. (1960) in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; M.S. (1964) and Ph.D. (1967) from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now the Polytechnic Institute of New York) in Astronautics; and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, M.A.L.S. (1969) from the New School for Social Research where he did graduate work in sociology and economics. He has been on the research staff of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, General Applied Science Laboratories, Advanced Technology Laboratories, Riverside Research Institute and National Academy of Sciences Senior Resident Research Associate at the NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Prof. Hoffert has published broadly in fluid mechanics, plasma physics, atmospheric science, oceanography, planetary atmospheres, environmental science, solar and winds energy conversion and space solar power. His work in geophysics aimed at development of theoretical models of atmospheres and oceans to address environmental issues, including the ocean/climate model first employed by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess global warming from different scenarios of fossil fuel use. His early model of the evolving CO2 greenhouse in Mars' atmosphere is also of interest today -- providing both an explanation of Mars' riverbed-like channels formed in the distant past and a motivation for terraforming its atmosphere for human habitability in the future. His research in alternate energy conversion includes wind tunnel and full-scale experiments on innovative wind turbines, photovoltaic generation of hydrogen and wireless power transmission applied to solar power satellites. His present efforts focus on energy technologies that could stabilize climate change from the fossil fuel greenhouse - including space solar power. He is a Member of the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is also Chairman of the Board of the Aspen Global Change Institute, senior fellow of the Breakthrough Institute and Chief Scientist of Versatility Energy Systems.