Repost from PostCarbon Institute [Editor: A lengthy article, well-worth your time. This is by Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow-in-Residence of the Post Carbon Institute and widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost Peak Oil educators. – RS]
Renewable Energy After COP21: Nine issues for climate leaders to think about on the journey home
Richard Heinberg, December 14, 2015
COP21 in Paris is over. Now it’s back to the hard work of fighting for, and implementing, the energy transition.
We all know that the transition away from fossil fuels is key to maintaining a livable planet. Several organizations have formulated proposals for transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy; some of those proposals focus on the national level, some the state level, while a few look at the global challenge.David Fridley(staff scientist of the energy analysis program at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory) and I have been working for the past few months to analyze and assess many of those proposals, and to dig deeper into energy transition issues—particularly how our use of energy will need to adapt in a ~100 percent renewable future. We have a book in the works, titledOur Renewable Future, that examines the adjustments society will have to make in the transition to new energy sources. We started this project with some general understanding of the likely constraints and opportunities in this transition; nevertheless, researching and writing Our Renewable Futurehas been a journey of discovery. Along the way, we identified not only technical issues requiring more attention, but also important implications for advocacy and policy. What follows is a short summary—tailored mostly to the United States—of what we’ve learned, along with some recommendations.
1. We really need a plan; no, lots of them
Germany has arguably accomplished more toward the transition than any other nation largely because it has a plan—theEnergiewende. This plan targets a 60 percent reduction in all fossil fuel use (not just in the electricity sector) by 2050, achieving a 50 percent cut in overall energy use through efficiency in power generation (fossil fueled power plants entail huge losses), buildings, and transport. It’s not a perfect plan, in that it really should aim higher than 60 percent. But it’s better than nothing, and the effort is off to a good start. Although the United States has a stated goal of generating 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, it does not have an equivalent official plan. Without it, we are at a significant disadvantage.
What would a plan do? It would identify the low-hanging fruit, show how resources need to be allocated, and identify needed policies. We would of course need to revise the plan frequently as we gained practical experience (as Germany is doing).
What follows are some components of a possible plan, based on work already done by many researchers in the United States and elsewhere; far more detail (with timelines, cost schedules, and policies) would be required for a fleshed-out version. It groups tasks into levels of difficulty; work would need to commence right away on tasks at all levels of difficulty, but for planning purposes it’s useful to know what can be achieved relatively quickly and cheaply, and what will take long, expensive, sustained effort.
Level One: The “easy” stuff
Nearly everyone agrees that the easiest way to kick-start the transition would be to replace coal with solar and wind power for electricity generation. That would require building lots of panels and turbines while regulating coal out of existence. Distributed generation and storage (rooftop solar panels with home- or business-scale battery packs) will help. Replacing natural gas will be harder, because gas-fired “peaking” plants are often used to buffer the intermittency of industrial-scale wind and solar inputs to the grid (see Level Two).
Electricity accounts for less than a quarter of all final energy used in the U.S. What about the rest of the energy we depend on? Since solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal produce electricity, it makes sense to electrify as much of our energy usage as we can. For example, we could heat and cool most buildings with electric air-source heat pumps (replacing natural gas- or oil-fueled furnaces). We could also begin switching out all our gas cooking stoves with electric stoves.
Transportation represents a large swath of energy consumption, and personal automobiles account for most of that. We could reduce oil consumption substantially if we all drove electric cars (replacing 250 million gasoline-fueled automobiles will take time and money, but will eventually result in energy and financial savings). But promoting walking, bicycling, and public transit will take much less time and investment, and be far more sustainable in the long-term.
Buildings will require substantial retrofitting for energy efficiency (this will again take time and investment, but will offer still more opportunities for savings). Building codes should be strengthened to require net-zero energy or near-net-zero-energy performance for new construction. More energy-efficient appliances will also help.
The food system is a big energy consumer, with fossil fuels used in the manufacturing of fertilizers, in food processing, and transportation. We could reduce a lot of that fuel consumption by increasing the market share of organic, local foods. While we’re at it, we could begin sequestering enormous amounts of atmospheric carbon in topsoil by promoting farming practices that build soil rather than deplete it.
If we got a good start in all these areas, we could achieve at least a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions in ten to twenty years.
Level Two: The harder stuff
Solar and wind technologies have a drawback: they provide energy intermittently. When they become dominant within our overall energy mix, we will have to accommodate that intermittency in various ways. We’ll need substantial amounts of grid-level energy storage as well as a major grid overhaul to get the electricity sector to 80 percent renewables (thereby replacing natural gas in electricity generation). We’ll also need to start timing our energy usage to better coincide with the availability of sunlight and wind energy. That in itself will present both technological and behavioral hurdles.
Electric cars aside, the transport sector will require longer-term and sometimes more expensive substitutions. We could reduce our need for cars (which require a lot of energy for their manufacture and de-commissioning) by densifying our cities and suburbs and reorienting them to public transit, bicycling, and walking. We could electrify all motorized human transport by building more electrified public transit and intercity passenger rail links. Heavy trucks could run on fuel cells, but it would be better to minimize trucking by expanding freight rail. Transport by ship could employ modern fsails to increase fuel efficiency (this is already being doneon a tiny scale), but re-localization or de-globalization of manufacturing would be a necessary co-strategy to reduce the need for shipping.
Much of the manufacturing sector already runs on electricity, but there are exceptions—and some of these will offer significant challenges.
Many raw materials for manufacturing processes either are fossil fuels (feedstocks for plastics and other petrochemical-based materials including lubricants, paints, dyes, pharmaceuticals, etc.) or currently require fossil fuels for mining and/or transformation (e.g., most metals). Considerable effort will be needed to replace fossil fuel-based materials and to recycle non-renewable materials more completely, significantly reducing the need for mining.
If we did all these things, while also building far, far more solar panels and wind turbines, we could achieve roughly an 80 percent reduction in emissions compared to our current level.
Level Three: The really hard stuff
Doing away with the last 20 percent of our current fossil fuel consumption is going to take still more time, research, and investment—as well as much more behavioral adaptation. Just one example: we currently use enormous amounts of cement for all kinds of construction activities. Cement making requires high heat, which could theoretically be supplied by sunlight, electricity, or hydrogen—but that will entail a nearly complete redesign of the process.
While with Level One we began a shift in food systems by promoting local organic food, driving carbon emissions down further will require finishing that job by making all food production organic, and requiring all agriculture to sequester carbon through building topsoil. Eliminating all fossil fuels in food systems will also entail a substantial re-design of those systems to minimize processing, packaging, and transport.
The communications sector—which uses mining and high heat processes for the production of phones, computers, servers, wires, photo-optic cables, cell towers, and more—presents some really knotty problems. The only good long-term solution in this sector is to make devices that are built to last a very long time and then to repair them and fully recycle and re-manufacture them when absolutely needed. The Internet could be maintained via the kinds of low-tech, asynchronous networks now being pioneered in poor nations, using relatively little power.
Back in the transport sector: we’ve already made shipping more efficient with sails in Level Two, but doing away with petroleum altogether will require costly substitutes (fuel cells or biofuels). One way or another, global trade will have to shrink. There is no good drop-in substitute for aviation fuels; we may have to write off aviation as anything but a specialty transport mode. Planes running on hydrogen or biofuels are an expensive possibility, as are dirigibles filled with (non-renewable) helium, any of which could help us maintain vestiges of air travel. Paving and repairing roads without oil-based asphalt is possible, but will require an almost complete redesign of processes and equipment.
The good news is that if we do all these things, we can get to beyond zero carbon emissions; that is, with sequestration of carbon in soils and forests, we could actually reduce atmospheric carbon with each passing year.
Plans will look different in each country, so each country (and each state) needs one.
2. It’s not all about solar and wind
These two energy resources have been the subjects of most of the discussion surrounding the renewable energy transition. Prices are falling, rates of installation are high, and there is a large potential for further growth. But, with a small number of exceptions, hydropower continues to serve as the largest source of renewable electricity.
The inherent intermittency of wind and solar power will pose increasing challenges as percentage levels of penetration into overall energy markets increase. Other renewable energy sources—hydropower, geothermal, and biomass—can more readily supply controllable baseload power, but they have much less opportunity for growth.
Hopes for high levels of wind and solar are therefore largely driven by the assumption that industrial societies can and should maintain very high levels of energy use. If energy usage in the United States could be scaled back significantly (70 to 90 percent) then a reliable all-renewable energy regime becomes much easier to envision and cheaper to engineer—but the system would need to look very different. Solar and wind would serve as significant sources of electricity and with usage timed to its availability, but hydro, geothermal, and some biomass (when environmentally appropriate) would serve as baseload power.
3. We must begin pre-adapting to less energy
It is unclear how much energy will be available to society at the end of the transition: there are many variables (including rates of investment and the capabilities of renewable energy technology without fossil fuels to back them up and to power their manufacture, at least in the early stages). Nevertheless, given all the challenges involved, it would be prudent to assume that people in wealthy industrialized countries will have less energy (even taking into account efficiencies in power generation and energy usage) than they would otherwise have, assuming a continuation of historic growth trends.
This conclusion is hard to avoid when considering the speed and scale of reduction in emissions actually required to avert climate catastrophe. As climate scientist Kevin Anderson points out ina recentNature Geosciencepaper:
According to the IPCC’s Synthesis Report, no more than 1,000 billion tonnes (1,000 Gt) of CO2 can be emitted between 2011 and 2100 for a 66% chance (or better) of remaining below 2 °C of warming (over preindustrial times)… However, between 2011 and 2014 CO2 emissions from energy production alone amounted to about 140 Gt of CO2… [Subtracting realistic emissions budgets for deforestation and cement production,] …the remaining budget for energy-only emissions over the period 2015–2100, for a ‘likely’ chance of staying below 2 °C, is about 650 Gt of CO2.
That 650 gigatons of carbon amounts to less than 19 years of continued business-as-usual emissions from global fossil energy use. The notion that the world could make a complete transition to alternative energy sources, using only that six-year fossil energy budget, and without significant reduction in overall energy use, might be characterized as optimism on a scale that stretches credulity.
The “how much will we have?” question reflects an understandable concern to maintain current levels of comfort and convenience as we switch energy sources. But in this regard it is good to keep ecological footprint analysis in mind.
According to the Global Footprint Network’sLiving Planet Report 2014, the amount of productive land and sea available to each person on Earth in order to live in a way that’s ecologically sustainable is 1.7 global hectares. The current per capita ecological footprint in the United States is 6.8 global hectares. Asking whether renewable energy could enable Americans to maintain their current lifestyle is therefore equivalent to asking whether renewable energy can keep us living unsustainably. The clear answer is: only temporarily, if at all . . . so why attempt the impossible? We should aim for a sustainable level of energy and material consumption, which on average is significantly lower than at present.
Efforts to pre-adapt to shrinking energy supplies have understandably gotten a lot less attention from activists than campaigns to leave fossil fuels in the ground, or to promote renewable energy projects. But if we don’t give equal thought to this bundle of problems, we will eventually be caught short and there will be significant economic and political fallout.
So what should we do to prepare for energy reduction? Look to California: its economy has grown for the past several decades while its per capita electricity demand has not. The state encouraged cooperation between research institutions, manufacturers, utilities, and regulators to figure out how to keep demand from growing by changing the way electricity is used. This is not a complete solution, but it may be one of the top success stories in the energy transition so far, rivaling that of Germany’sEnergiewende. It should be copied in every state and country.
4. Consumerism is a problem, not a solution
Current policy makers see increased buying and discarding of industrial products as a solution to the problem of stagnating economies. With nearly 70 percent of the United States economytied to consumer spending, it is easy to see why consumption is encouraged. Historically, the form of social and economic order known as consumerism largely emerged asa response to industrial overproduction—one of the causes of the Great Depression—which in turn resulted from an abundant availability of cheap fossil energy. Before and especially after the Depression and World War II, the advertising and consumer credit industries grew dramatically as a means of stoking product purchases, and politicians of all political persuasions joined the chorus urging citizens to think of themselves as “consumers,” and to take their new job description to heart.
If the transition to renewable energy implies a reduction in overall energy availability, if mobility is diminished, and if many industrial processes involving high heat and the use of fossil fuels as feedstocks become more expensive or are curtailed, then conservation must assume a much higher priority than consumption in the dawning post-fossil-fuel era. If it becomes more difficult and costly to produce and distribute goods such as clothing, computers, and phones, then people will have to use these manufactured goods longer, and repurpose, remanufacture, and recycle them wherever possible. Rather than a consumer economy, this will be a conserver economy.
The switch from one set of priorities and incentives (consumerism) to the other (conservation) implies not just a major change in American culture but also a vast shift in both the economy and in government policy, with implications for nearly every industry. If this shift is to occur with a minimum of stress, it should be thought out ahead of time and guided with policy. We see little evidence of such planning currently, and it is not clear what governmental body would have the authority and capacity to undertake it. Nor do we yet see a culture shift powerful and broad-based enough to propel policy change.
The renewable economy will likely be slower and more local. Economic growth may reverse itself as per capita consumption shrinks; if we are to avert a financial crash (and perhaps a revolution as well) we may need a different economic organizing principle. In her recent book on climate change,This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein asks whether capitalism be preserved in the era of climate change; while it probably can (capitalism needs profit more than growth), that may not be a good idea because, in the absence of overall growth, profits for some will have to come at a cost to everyone else. And this is exactly what we have been seeing in the years since the financial crash of 2008.
The idea of a conserver economy has been around at least since the 1970s, and both the European degrowth movement and the leaders of the relatively new discipline of ecological economics have given it a lot of thought. Their insights deserve to be at the center of energy transition discussions.
5. Population growth makes everything harder
A discussion of population might seem off-topic. But if energy and materials (which represent embodied energy) are likely to be more scarce in the decades ahead of us, population growth will mean even less consumption per capita. And global population is indeed growing: on a net basis (births minus deaths) we arecurrently adding 82 million humans to the rolls each year, a larger number than at any time in the past, even if the rate of growth is slowing.
Population growth of the past century was enabled by factors—many of which trace back to the availability of abundant, cheap energy and the abundant, cheap food that it enabled—that may be reaching a point of diminishing returns. Policy makers face the decision now of whether to humanely reduce population by promoting family planning and by public persuasion—by raising the educational level of poor women around the world and giving women full control over their reproductive rights—or to let nature deal with overpopulation in unnecessarily brutal ways. For detailed recommendations regarding population matters, consult population organizations such asPopulation Institute andPopulation Media Center. Population is a climate issue.
6. Fossil fuels are too valuable to allocate solely by the market
Our analysis suggests that industrial societies will need to keep using fossil fuels for some applications until the very final stages of the energy transition—and possibly beyond, for non-energy purposes. Crucially, we will need to use fossil fuels (for the time being, anyway) for industrial processes and transportation needed to build andinstall renewable energy systems.We will also need to continue using fossil fuels in agriculture, manufacturing, and general transportation, until robust renewable energy-based technologies are available. This implies several problems.
As the best of our remaining fossil fuels are depleted, society will by necessity be extracting and burning ever lower-grade coal, oil, and natural gas. We see this trend already far advanced in the petroleum industry, where virtually all new production prospects involve tight oil, tar sands, ultra-heavy oil, deepwater oil, or Arctic oil—all of which entail high production costs and high environmental risk as compared to conventional oil found and produced during the 20thcentury. Burning these heavier, dirtier fuels will create ever more co-pollutants that have a disproportionate health impact and burden on low-income communities. The fact that the fossil fuel industry will require ever-increasing levels of investment per unit of energy yielded has a gloomy implication for the energy transition: society’s available capital will have to be directed toward the deteriorating fossil fuel sector to maintain current services, just as much more capital is also needed to fund the build-out of renewables. Seemingly the only way to avoid this trap would be to push the energy transition as quickly as possible, so that we aren’t stuck two or three decades from now still dependent on fossil fuels that, by then, will be requiring so much investment to find and extract that society may not be able to afford the transition project.
But there’s also a problem with accelerating the transition too much. Since we use fossil fuels to build the infrastructure for renewables, speeding up the transition could mean an overall increase in emissions—unless we reduce other current uses of fossil fuels. In other words, we may have to deprive some sectors of the economy of fossil fuels before adequate renewable substitutes are available, in order to fuel the transition without increasing overall greenhouse gas emissions. This would translate to a reduction in overall energy consumption and in the economic benefits of energy use (though money saved from conservation and efficiency would hopefully reduce the impact), and this would have to be done without producing a regressive impact on already vulnerable and economically disadvantaged communities.
We may be entering a period of fossil fuel triage. Rather than allocating fossil fuels simply on a market basis (those who pay for them get them), it may be fairer, especially to lower-income citizens, for government (with wartime powers) to allocate fuels purposefully based on the strategic importance of the societal sectors that depend on them, and on the relative ease and timeliness of transitioning those sectors to renewable substitutes. Agriculture, for example, might be deemed the highest priority for continued fossil fuel allocations, with commercial air travel assuming a far lower priority. Perhaps we need not just a price on carbon, but different prices for different uses. We see very little discussion of this prospect in the current energy policy literature. Further, few governments even currently acknowledge the need for a carbon budget. The political center of gravity, particularly in the United States, will have to shift significantly before decision makers can publicly acknowledge the need for fossil fuel triage.
As fossil fuels grow more costly to extract, there may be ever-greater temptation to use our available energy and investment capital merely to maintain existing consumption patterns (likely for the rich above all), and to put off the effort that the transition implies. If we do that, we will eventually reap the worst of all possible outcomes—climate chaos, a gutted economy, and no continuing wherewithal to build a bridge to a renewable energy future.
7. Equity within and between nations has to be addressed
The ability to harness energy creates wealth and confers social power. With the advent of fossil fuels came a rush of wealth and power such as the world had never before seen. Naturally, humanitarians saw this as an opportunity to spread wealth and power around so as to lift all of humanity above drudgery, eliminate hunger, and even put an end to war. And to a large degree that opportunity has been seized: overall,child mortality rates are down, life expectancy is up,infectious diseases are on the decline,hunger has been reduced(even as population has dramatically grown), andmortality from violence has declinedsince the end of World War II.
Yet globally, wealthy industrial nations have disproportionately benefitted from the fossil fuel revolution while poorer nations have disproportionately borne the costs. And a similar disparity also exists within nations, both rich and poor ones. Further, the injustice of energy wealth vs. energy poverty is increasingly magnified by climate impacts, which fall disproportionately upon energy poor societies—both because of geographical happenstance and because they do not have the same level of resources to devote toward adaptation.
Now we arrive at a crossroads, where the wealth-generating energy sources of the past two centuries (fossil fuels) must give way to different energy sources. While the decades ahead may see declining per capita energy consumption in the industrialized world, the transition to renewable energy does not automatically herald a more egalitarian future. Entrenched economic interests that benefited disproportionately during the fossil fuel era may seek to maintain their advantages as everyone else adjusts to lower consumption levels, attempting to ensure that their slice of a diminishing pie is left untouched. It is also possible that nations, and wealthy communities within nations, will build robust, largely self-contained renewable energy systems while everyone else continues to depend upon increasingly dysfunctional and expensive electricity grids that are increasingly starved of fuel. In either case, current levels of economic inequality could persist or worsen.
Pursuing the renewable energy transition without equity in mind would likely doom the entire project. Unless the interests of people at lower economic levels are taken into account and existing inequalities are reduced, the inevitable stresses accompanying this all-encompassing societal transformation could result in ever-deeper divisions both between and within nations, and lead to open conflict. On the other hand, if everyone is drawn into a visionary project that entails shared effort as well as shared gains, the result could be overwhelmingly beneficial for all of humanity. This is true, of course, not only for the renewable energy transition but also for our response to impacts of climate change that are by now unavoidable.
8. Everything is connected
Throughout the energy transition, great attention will have to be given to the interdependent linkages and supply chains connecting various sectors (communications, mining, and transport knit together most of what we do in industrial societies). Some links in supply chains will be hard to substitute, and chains can be brittle: a problem with even one link can imperil the entire chain. This is the modern manifestation of the old nursery rhyme, “for the want of a nail…the kingdom was lost.”
The graphic above shows the various components, each with its own manufacturing sector somewhere in the world. Planning will need to take such interdependencies into account. As every ecologist knows, you can’t do just one thing.
9. This is not plug-and-play; it is civilization reboot
Energy transitions change everything. From a public relations standpoint, it may be helpful to give politicians or the general public the impression that life will go on as before while we unplug coal power plants and plug in solar panels, but the reality will probably be quite different. During historic energy transitions, economies and political systems underwent profound metamorphoses. There is no reason to suppose that it will be different this time around. If this is done right, the changes that must take place will bring with them opportunities for societal improvement and the greater wellbeing of everyone—including the rest of the biosphere.
* * *
For every answer David Fridley and I identified to the problem of how to power a modern industrial society with 100 percent renewable energy, it seemed that one or more questions popped up. For example, a massive deployment of electric cars would drastically reduce our dependence on oil—but how will we make electric cars without fossil fuels for plastics and tires? The high temperatures for industrial processes used to make glass and steel for those cars could be supplied by renewable electricity, but at what price? And how will we build and repair roads?
Studies showing an easy and affordable path to 100 percent renewable energy typically have an agenda with which we entirely concur: the transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy must occur, whatever the roadblocks. Some of those roadblocks take the form of simple inertia: companies—indeed, whole societies—will invest in fundamental changes to their ways of doing business only when they have to, and most are quite comfortable with their current fossil-fuel-dependent processes, supply chains, and of course sunk costs.
Studies claiming that a transition to renewable energy will be easy and cost-free may allay fears and thus help speed the transition. However, sweeping actual difficulties under the carpet also delays confronting them. We need to start now to address the problems of energy demand adaptation, of balancing intermittency in energy supply from solar and wind, and of energy substitution in thousands of industrial processes. Those are big jobs, and ignoring them won’t make them go away.
If many of the unknowns in the renewable energy transition imply roadblocks and speed bumps, some could turn out to be opportunities, and we cheerfully acknowledge that many conundrums may be much more easily solved than currently appears likely. For example, it is conceivable that new technical advances could result ina zero-carbon cementthat is cheaper to make than the current carbon-intensive variety. But that’s extremely unlikely to happen until serious attention is given to the problem.
At the end of the renewable energy transition, if it is successful, we will achieve savings in ongoing energy expenditures needed for each increment of economic production, and we may be rewarded with a quality of life that is acceptable and perhaps preferable over our current one (even though, for most Americans, material consumption will be scaled back from its current unsustainable level). We will get a much more stable climate than would otherwise be the case, along with greatly reduced health and environmental impacts from energy production activities.
But the transition will entail costs—in terms of money, regulation, and the requirement to change our behavior and expectations. And delay would be fatal.
Below are some suggestions geared specifically to environmental nonprofits and funders.
Create social momentum to support a global powerdown, helping prepare society for an effort and a shift as huge as the Industrial Revolution. While the concern about providing opponents with ammunition is understandable, downplaying or ignoring the real implications of the energy transition may not only engender distrust, it might also waste an opportunity to provide people with a sense of agency.
Where key uses of fossil fuels are especially hard to substitute (aviation fuel, for example), argue for work-arounds (such as rail) or for the managed, gradual scaling down of those uses.
Take a leadership role in initiating visionary projects to further the energy transition, then enlist communities to take those projects on, and to benefit from them. These could be renewable energy, local food, transport, import substitution, recycling, or energy efficiency projects—the possibilities are nearly endless.
In addition to resisting the dominance of fossil fuels, engage with communities to create persuasive models of how people can live and thrive with much reduced reliance on fossil fuels.
Advocate for a just transition to renewable energy that benefits all people and communities. If the NGO world doesn’t do this, who will? And without such advocacy, the energy transition could actually exacerbate existing inequity.
The philanthropic sector inevitably exerts a very large influence over the priorities of nonprofit organizations that it funds. Funders should increasingly support:
Efforts to educate and inspire citizens about the energy transition.
Projects that involve development of new economic models that enable people to live with less energy, but in ways that bring greater life satisfaction.
Replicable models of community development that include taking charge of local energy production and reducing fossil fuel demand across many sectors.
Funders could also help the nonprofit community view the energy transition as a systemic transformation, one that only begins with shutting down coal power plants.
The technical coordination of the renewable transition is itself an enormous task, and currently nobody is handling it. It will likely require a global authority to determine how to direct the use of the world’s remaining burnable fossil fuels—whether toward the further growth of conventional manufacturing and transportation, or toward the build-out of renewable energy-based generation and consumption infrastructure. Only such an authority could globally prioritize and coordinate sectoral shifts (in agriculture, transport, manufacturing, and buildings) to reduce fossil fuel consumption as quickly as possible without reducing economic benefits in unacceptable ways.
But in the absence of such an international authority, the onus of this work will fall largely upon nonprofit environmental organizations and their funders, along with national and local governments.
One way or another, it’s time to make a plan—as comprehensive and detailed as we can manage—and run with it, revising it as we go. And to “sell” that plan, honestly but skillfully, to policy makers and our fellow citizens.
Part one of a four-part video series. Released in conjunction with Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels.
Is modern society hitting our defining moment, the point of diminishing returns?
In this brand new short video released today, Richard Heinberg explores how — in our economy, the environment, and energy production — we may well be. When previous societies have hit similar limits, they often doubled-down by attempting ever more complex interventions to keep things going, before finally collapsing. Will this be our fate too? And is there an alternative?
This video is the first in a four-part series by Richard Heinberg and Post Carbon Institute. The themes covered in these videos are much more thoroughly explored in Heinberg’s latest book, Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels.
Repost from RichardHeinberg.com [Editor: This month’s Richard Heinberg Museletter is Part 2 of his extended essay, “Our Renewable Future Or, What I’ve Learned in 12 Years Writing about Energy.” The only new part is the ending, “Neither Utopia Nor Extinction – After the Peak,” see below. [read part 1 here]. – RS]
Neither Utopia Nor Extinction
By Richard Heinberg, Museletter 273, February 24, 2015
After the Peak
Nearly 17 years ago the modern peak oil movement began with the publication of “The End of Cheap Oil” by petroleum geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère in the March, 1998 issue of Scientific American. Campbell coined the term “peak oil” to describe the inevitable moment when the world petroleum industry would produce oil at its historic maximum rate. From then on, production would decline as the overall quality of available resources deteriorated, and as increasing investments produced diminishing returns. Unless society had dramatically and proactively reduced its reliance on oil, the result would be a series of economic shocks that would devastate industrial societies.
Campbell estimated that global conventional oil production would reach its maximum rate sometime before the year 2010. In later publications, Laherrère added that the peak in conventional oil would cause prices to rise, creating the incentive to develop more unconventional petroleum resources. The result would be a delayed peak for “all liquid fuels,” which he estimated would occur around the year 2015.
Today we may be very nearly at that latter peak. Slightly ahead of forecast, conventional oil production started drifting lower in 2005, resulting in several years of record high prices—which led the industry to develop technology to extract tar sands and tight oil, and also incentivized the US and Brazil to begin producing large quantities of biofuels. But high petroleum prices also gradually weakened the economies of oil-dependent industrial nations, reducing their demand for liquid fuels. The resulting mismatch between growing supply and moderating demand has resulted in a temporary market glut and falling oil prices.
Crashing prices are in turn forcing the industry to cut back on drilling. As a result of idled rigs, global crude production will probably contract in the last half of 2015 through the first half of 2016. Even if prices recover as a result of falling output, production will probably not return to its recent upward trajectory, because the US tight oil boom is set to go bust around 2016 in any case. And banks, once burned in their lavish support for marginally profitable drilling projects, are unlikely to jump back into the unconventionals arena with both feet.
Ironically, just as the rate of the world’s liquid fuels production may be about to crest the curve, we’re hearing that warnings of peak oil were wrongheaded all along. The world is in the midst of a supply glut and prices are declining, tireless resource optimists remind us. Surely this disproves those pessimistic prophets of peril! However, as long-time peakist commentator Ron Patterson notes:
Peak oil will be the point in time when more oil is produced than has ever been produced in the history of the world, or ever will be in the future of the world. It is far more likely that this period will be thought of as a time of an oil glut rather than a time of an oil shortage.
Within a couple of years, those of us who have spent most of the past two decades warning about the approaching peak may see vindication by data, if not by public opinion. So should we prepare to gloat? I don’t plan to. After all, the purpose of the exercise was not to score points, but to warn society. We were seeking to change the industrial system in such a way as to reduce the scale of the coming economic shock. There’s no sign we succeeded in doing that. We spent most of our efforts just battling to be heard; our actual impact on energy policy was minimal.
There’s no cause for shame in that: the deck was stacked against us. The economics profession, which has a stranglehold on government policy, steadfastly continues to insist that energy is a fully substitutable ingredient in the economy, and that resource depletion poses no limit to economic growth. Believing this to be true, policy makers have effectively had their fingers jammed in their ears.
A cynic might conclude that now is a good time for peak oil veterans to declare victory, hunker down, and watch the tragedy unfold. But for serious participants in the discussion this is where the real work commences.
During these past 17 years, as the peak oil debate roiled energy experts, climate change emerged as an issue of ecosystem survival, providing another compelling reason to reduce our reliance not just on oil, but all fossil fuels. However, the world’s response to the climate issue was roughly the same as for peak oil: denial and waffling.
Today, society is about to begin its inevitable, wrenching adaptation to having less energy and mobility, just as the impacts of fossil fuel-driven climate change are starting to hit home. How will those of us who have spent the past years in warning mode contribute to this next crucial chapter in the unfolding human drama?
Despite peakists’ inability to change government policy, our project was far from being a waste of time and effort. The world is better off today than it would have been if we had done nothing—though clearly not as much better as we would have liked. A few million people understood the message, and at least tens of thousands changed their lives and will be better prepared for what’s coming. One could say the same for climate activism.
If our main goal during the past 17 years was to alert the world about looming challenges, now it is to foster adaptation to fundamental shifts that are currently under way. The questions that need exploration now are:
How can we help build resilience throughout society, starting locally, assuming we will have little or no access to the reins of national policy?
How can we help society adapt to climate change while building a zero-emissions energy infrastructure?
We have to assume that this work will have to be undertaken in the midst of accelerating economic decay, ecological disruption, and periodic crises—far from ideal operating conditions.
On the other hand, there is the possibility that crisis could act in our favor. As their routines and expectations are disturbed, many people may be open to new explanations of their predicament and to new behaviors to help them adapt to energy and monetary poverty. Our challenge will be to frame unfolding events persuasively in ecological terms (energy, habitat, population) rather than conventional political terms (good guys, bad guys), and to offer practical solutions to the burgeoning everyday problems of survival—solutions that reduce ecological strains rather than worsening them. Our goal should not be to preserve industrial societies or middle-class lifestyles as we have known them (that’s impossible anyway), but to offer a “prosperous way down,” as Howard Odum put it, while preserving whatever cultural goods that can be salvaged and that deserve the effort.
As with our recent efforts to warn society about peak oil, there is no guarantee of success. But it’s what needs doing.
Or, What I’ve Learned in 12 Years Writing about Energy
(7000 words, about 25 minutes reading time)
By Richard Heinberg, January 21, 2015
Folks who pay attention to energy and climate issues are regularly treated to two competing depictions of society’s energy options.* On one hand, the fossil fuel industry claims that its products deliver unique economic benefits, and that giving up coal, oil, and natural gas in favor of renewable energy sources like solar and wind will entail sacrifice and suffering (this gives a flavor of their argument). Saving the climate may not be worth the trouble, they say, unless we can find affordable ways to capture and sequester carbon as we continue burning fossil fuels.
On the other hand, at least some renewable energy proponents tell us there is plenty of wind and sun, the fuel is free, and the only thing standing between us and a climate-protected world of plentiful, sustainable, “green” energy, jobs, and economic growth is the political clout of the coal, oil, and gas industries (here is a taste of that line of thought).
Which message is right? Will our energy future be fueled by fossils (with or without carbon capture technology), or powered by abundant, renewable wind and sunlight? Does the truth lie somewhere between these extremes—that is, does an “all of the above” energy future await us? Or is our energy destiny located in a Terra Incognita that neither fossil fuel promoters nor renewable energy advocates talk much about? As maddening as it may be, the latter conclusion may be the one best supported by the facts.
If that uncharted land had a motto, it might be, “How we use energy is as important as how we get it.”
1. Unburnable Fossils and Intermittent Electricity
Let’s start with the claim that giving up coal, oil, and gas will hurl us back to the Stone Age. It’s true that fossil fuels have offered extraordinary economic benefits. The cheap, concentrated, and portable energy stored in these remarkable substances opened the way, during the past couple of centuries, for industrial expansion on a scale previously inconceivable. Why not just continue burning fossil fuels, then? Over the long term that is simply not an option, for two decisive reasons.
First, burning fossil fuels is changing the climate to such a degree, and at such a pace, that economic as well as ecological ruin may ensue within the lifetimes of today’s schoolchildren. The science is in: either we go cold turkey on our coal, oil, and gas addictions, or we risk raising the planet’s temperature to a level incompatible with the continued existence of civilization.
Second, these are depleting, non-renewable sources of energy. We have harvested them using the low-hanging fruit principle, which means that further increments of extraction will entail rising costs (for example, the oil industry’s costs for exploration and production have recently been soaring at nearly 11 percent per year) as well as worsening environmental risks. This problem has been sneaking up on us over the last ten years, as sputtering conventional oil and natural gas production set the stage for the Great Recession and the expensive (and environmentally destructive) practices of “fracking” and tar sands mining. Despite the recent plunge in oil prices the fossil fuel party is indeed over. Sooner or later the stark reality of declining fossil energy availability will rivet everyone’s attention: we are overwhelmingly dependent on these fuels for nearly everything we eat, consume, use, and trade, and—as Americans started to learn in the 1970s as a result of a couple nasty oil shocks—the withdrawal symptoms are killer.
So while fossil fuel promoters are right in saying that coal, oil, and gas are essential to our current economy, what they omit mentioning is actually more crucial if we care how our world will look more than a few years into the future.
Well then, are the most enthusiastic of the solar and wind boosters correct in claiming that renewable energy sources are ready to substitute for coal, oil, and gas quickly enough and in sufficient quantity to keep the global economy growing? There’s a hitch here, which critics are only too quick to point out. We’ve designed our energy consumption patterns to take advantage of controllable inputs. Need more power? If you’re relying on coal for energy, just shovel more fuel into the boiler. But solar and wind are different: they are available on Nature’s terms, not ours. Sometimes the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, sometimes not. Energy geeks have a vocabulary to describe this—they say solar and wind power are intermittent, variable, stochastic, or chaotic.
Variability of wind generation in Germany for 2012 (source: European Energy Exchange)
There are ways of buffering this variability: we can store energy from renewable sources with batteries or flywheels, or pump water uphill so as to recapture its potential energy later when it flows back downstream; or we can build a massive super-grid with robustly redundant generating capacity so that, when sun and wind aren’t available in one region, another region can cover demand throughout the entire interconnected system. But these strategies cost money and energy, and add layers of complexity and vulnerability to what is already the largest machine ever built (i.e., the power grid).
Crucially, a recent study by Weissbach et al.compared the full-lifecycle energy economics of various types of power plants and found that once the intermittency of solar and wind energy is buffered by storage technologies, these sources become far less efficient than coal, natural gas, or nuclear plants; indeed, once storage is added, solar and wind fall “below the economical threshold” of long-term viability, regardless of the falling dollar price of panels and turbines themselves. The problem lies in the fact that the amount of energy embodied in the full generation-storage system cannot be repaid, with a substantial energy profit, by that system over its lifetime. Recent operational studies of solar PV systems in Spain and Australia have come to similar conclusions.
Another way to deal with variability is demand management, which can take a variety of forms (I’ll be discussing some of those later in a fair amount of detail). These all, by definition, mean changing the ways we use energy. But for the moment let’s stay with the subject of energy supply.
Early increments of solar and wind power are easy and cheap to integrate into the existing electricity distribution system because power from gas-fired peaking plants can quickly (literally, by the minute) be ramped up or down to accommodate these new, small, variable inputs while also matching changing overall demand levels. In this case, the price of wind and solar energy gets counted as just the immediate cost of building, installing, and maintaining turbines and panels. And, as the New York Times recently noted, the price of electricity from renewables (counted this way) is now often competitive with electricity from fossil fuels. On this basis, solar and wind are disruptive technologies: they’re getting cheaper while fossil fuels can only grow costlier. This one clear economic advantage of renewable energy—free “fuel” in the forms of sunlight and wind—is decisive, as Germany is now seeing with falling wholesale electricity prices (though retail prices are rising due to feed-in tariffs that require the utility industry to pay above-market prices for renewable electricity).
But as electricity from variable renewables makes up a larger and larger proportion of all power generated, the requirements for energy storage technologies, capacity redundancy, and grid upgrades will inevitably climb; indeed, beyond a certain point, the scale of needed investment is likely to explode. Grid managers tend to say that the inflection point arrives when solar and wind power provide about 30 percent of total electricity demand, though one computer model suggests it could be put off until 80 percent market penetration is achieved. (For two contrasting views on the question of how expensive and difficult intermittency makes the renewables transition—from renewable energy optimists Jacobson and Delucchi on one hand, and from “The Simpler Way” advocate Ted Trainer on the other—see a highly informative peer-reviewed exchange here, here, and here.) The looming need for investment in storage and grid upgrades is part of the reason some electric utility companies are starting to wage war against renewables (another part is that net metering puts utilities at a disadvantage relative to solar homeowners; still another is simply that fossil fuel interests hate competition from solar and wind on general principle). As solar panels get cheaper, more homes and businesses install them; this imposes intermittency-smoothing costs on utility companies, which then raise retail prices to ratepayers. The latter then have even more of an incentive to install self-contained, battery-backed solar and abandon the grid altogether, leading to a utility “death spiral.”
So far, we’ve talked only about electricity. The power generation sector arguably represents the easiest phase of the overall energy transition (since alternative technologies do exist, even if they’re problematic)—but only about 22 percent of global energy is consumed in the form of electrical power; in the US the figure is 33 percent. Our biggest single energy source is oil, which fuels nearly all transportation. Transport is central to trade, which in turn is the beating heart of the global market economy. Oil also fuels the agricultural sector, and eating is fairly important to most of us. Of the three main fossil fuels, oil is showing the most immediate signs of depletion, and renewable options for replacing it are fairly dismal.
It is possible to electrify much of our transportation, and electric cars are now decorating showrooms. But they have a minuscule market share and, at the current growth rate, will take many decades to oust conventional gasoline-fueled automobiles (some analysts believe that growth rate will soon increase dramatically). In any case, batteries do not do well in large, heavy vehicles. The reason has to do with energy density: an electric battery typically is able to store and deliver only about 0.1 to 0.5 megajoules of energy per kilogram; thus, compared to gasoline or diesel (at 44 to 48 MJ/kg), it is very heavy in relation to its energy output. Some breakthroughs in battery storage density and price appear to be on the horizon, but even with these improvements the problem remains: the theoretical maximum energy storage for batteries (about 5 MJ/kg) is still far below the energy density of oil. Neither long-haul trucking nor container shipping is ever likely to be electrified on any significant scale, and electric airliners are simply a non-starter.
Energy storage density by weight (horizontal axis) and volume (vertical axis) for selected media. A hypothetical ideal energy storage medium would appear in the upper right-hand corner of the graph. (Source: Pascal Mickelson)
Hydrogen offers a medium for storing energy in a way that can be used to power vehicles (among other things), and Toyota is about to release its first commercial hydrogen-powered car. But if we produce hydrogen with renewable energy, that means making H2 from water using solar or wind-based electricity; unfortunately, this is an expensive way to go about it (most commercially produced hydrogen is currently made from natural gas, because the gas-reforming process is inherently more efficient and therefore almost always cheaper than electrolysis, regardless of the electricity source).
The question is inescapable: will our renewable future offer less mobility? If so, this in itself would have enormous implications for the economy and for daily life. Another question arising from all of the above: will the quantity of energy available in our renewable-energy future match energy demand forecasts based on consumption trends in recent decades? There are too many variables to permit a remotely accurate estimate of how much less energy we might have to work with (we simply don’t know how quickly renewable energy technology will evolve, or how much capital investment will materialize). However, it’s good to keep in mind the fact that the energy transition of the 19th and 20th centuries was additive: we just kept piling new energy sources on top of existing ones (we started with firewood, then added coal, oil, hydropower, natural gas, and nuclear); further, it was driven by economic opportunity. In contrast, the energy transition of the 21st century will entail the replacement of our existing primary energy sources, and it may largely be driven either by government policy or by crisis (fuel scarcity, climate-induced weather disasters, or economic decline).
The additive history of energy sources (source: David Hughes)
Even supply forecasts from renewable energy optimists who tell us that intermittency is affordably solvable typically assume we will have less available electrical energy, once the shift away from fossil fuels is complete, than the International Energy Agency estimates that we would otherwise want (for example, analysis by Lund and Mathieson projects energy consumption levels in 2030 in Denmark to be only 11 percent higher than 2004 demand, with no further increase between 2030 and 2050, whereas IEA forecasts assume continued demand growth through mid-century). However, if (as the Weissbach study suggests) intermittency is in fact a serious economic burden for solar and wind power over the long term, then we need to entertain the likelihood that energy supplies available at the end of the century may be smaller—maybe considerably smaller—than they are now.
At the same time, the qualities of our energy supply will differ from what we are used to. As explained earlier, solar and wind are intermittent, unlike fossil energy supplies. Further, while planet Earth is blessed with lots of wind and sunlight, these are diffuse energy sources that need collecting and concentrating if they’re to operate heavy machinery. During the coming energy transition, we will be shifting from energy sources with a small geographic footprint (e.g., a natural gas well) toward ones with larger footprints (wind and solar farms collecting ambient sources of energy). True, we can cut the effective footprint of solar by using existing rooftops, and wind turbines can share space with food crops. Nevertheless, there will be unavoidable costs, inefficiencies, and environmental impacts resulting from the increasing geographical extent of energy collection activities.
The potency of fossil fuels derives from the fact that Nature did all the prior work of taking energy from sunlight, storing it in chemical bonds within plants, then gathering those ancient plants and transforming and concentrating their chemical energy, using enormous heat and pressure, over millions of years. Renewable energy technologies represent attempts to gather and concentrate ambient energy in present time, substituting built capital for Nature’s free gifts.
Moreover, while electrical power is easily transported via the grid, this doesn’t change the fact that sunlight, hydropower, biomass, and wind are more available in some places than others. Long-distance electricity transmission entails infrastructure costs and energy losses, while transporting biomass more than a hundred miles or so typically erases the crucial energy profitability of its use.
4. A Possible Outcome of Current Energy Trends
The price of renewable energy is falling while the cost of producing fossil fuels is rising. The crossover point, where fossil fuels cease to be cost competitive, could come soon—perhaps in the next decade.
What happens then? As batteries get cheaper, electric cars could become the industry standard; reduced gasoline demand would likely force the price of oil below its marginal production cost. If falling demand periodically outpaced declining supply (and vice versa), the result would be increasingly volatile petroleum prices, which would be bad for everyone. Meanwhile as more businesses and homes installed cost-competitive solar-and-battery systems, conventional utilities could go bankrupt.
The result: we would have green energy technology, but not the energy means to maintain and reproduce it over the long run (since every aspect of the renewable energy deployment process currently relies on fossil fuels —particularly oil— because of their unique energy density characteristics).
During the transition, what proportion of the world’s people would be able to afford the up-front investment required for entry into the renewable energy club? It’s likely that many (including poor people in rich countries) would not, especially given current trends toward increasing economic inequality; for these folks, conventional fossil-based grid power would likewise become unaffordable, or simply unavailable.
What if renewable energy optimists are right in saying that solar and wind are disruptive technologies against which fossil fuels cannot ultimately compete, but renewables critics are correct in arguing that solar and wind are inherently incapable of powering industrial societies as currently configured, absent a support infrastructure (mines, smelters, forges, ships, trucks, and so on) running on fossil fuels?
5. Googling Questions
The combined quantity and quality issues of our renewable energy future are sufficiently daunting that Google engineers who, in 2007, embarked on an ambitious, well-funded project to solve the world’s climate and energy problems, effectively gave up. It seems that money, brainpower, and a willingness to think outside the box weren’t enough. “We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change,” write Ross Koningstein and David Fork, key members of the RE<C project team. “We now know that to be a false hope.”
The Google team defined “success” as identifying a renewable energy system that could compete economically with coal and could also be deployed fast enough to stave off the worst climate change impacts. The team concluded that renewable energy isn’t up to that job. In their article, Koningstein and Fork put on a brave face, hoping that some currently unknown energy source will appear at the last minute to save the day. But putting one’s faith in a currently non-existent energy source seems less realistic than working for dramatic improvements to solar and wind technologies. A completely new source would require decades for development, testing, and deployment. Realistically, our choice of replacements for fossil fuels is limited to energy sources that can be harnessed with current technology, even if they can’t keep the industrial growth engine humming.
In inquiring whether renewable energy can solve the climate crisis at essentially no net economic cost, Koningstein and Fork may have been posing the wrong question. They were, in effect, asking whether renewables can support our current growth-based industrial economy while saving the environment. They might more profitably have inquired what kind of economy renewable energy can support. We humans got by on renewable sources of energy for millennia, achieving high levels of civilization and culture using wind, sun, water, wood, and animal power alone (though earlier civilizations often faced depletion dilemmas with regard to resources other than fossil fuels). The depletion/climate drawbacks of fossil fuels ensure that, as the century progresses, we will indeed return to a renewables-based economy of some sort, running on hydropower, solar, wind, and a suite of other, more marginal renewable sources including biomass, geothermal, wave, microhydro, and tidal power.
We always adapt our energy sources, as much as we can, to suit the ways we want to use energy. It is therefore understandable that most people would like somehow to make solar and wind act just like fossil fuels, which have shaped our current consumption patterns. But that leads us back to the problems of energy storage, capacity redundancy, grid redesign, transport electrification, and so on. Weissbach’s study suggests that the costs of enabling solar and wind to act like fossil fuels are so great as to virtually cancel out these renewables’ very real benefits. Reluctantly but increasingly, we may have to adapt the ways we use energy to suit the quantities and inherent qualities of the energy available to us.
Fossil fuels shaped our current infrastructure of mines, smelters, forges, factories, pipelines, grids, farms, highways, airports, pumps, shopping malls, suburbs, warehouses, furnaces, office buildings, houses, and more. We built the modern world with the assumption that we would always have more energy with similar characteristics to maintain, operate, and replace this staggering and still-growing array of machines, structures, and support systems. Where it is absolutely essential to maintain these systems in their current form, we will certainly make every effort to adapt our new energy sources to the job (using batteries, for example); where systems can themselves be adapted to using less energy or energy that is intermittently available, we will adapt those systems. But in many instances it may be unaffordable to adapt either the energy source or the usage system; in those cases, we will simply do without services we had become accustomed to.
This may be the renewable future that awaits us. To prepare for that likelihood, we need to build large numbers of solar panels and wind turbines while also beginning a process of industrial-economic triage.
Reconfiguring civilization to operate on less energy and on energy with different characteristics is a big job—one that, paradoxically, may itself require a substantial amount of energy. If the necessity of expending energy on a civilization rebuild coincides with a reduction in available energy, that would again mean that our renewable future will not be an extension of the expansive economic thrust of the 20th century. We may be headed into lean times.
Granted, there is a lot of uncertainty here. Some countries are better placed to harvest ambient natural energy sources than others. Some academic studies paint an over-optimistic picture of renewables, because they focus only on electricity and ignore or understate the costs of variability mitigation; other studies arrive at unfairly pessimistic assessments of renewables because they use obsolete price data. It’s hard to portray our renewable future in a way that one analyst or another will not dispute, at least in terms of detail. Nevertheless, most energy experts would probably agree with the general outline of renewable energy’s potential that I’ve traced here.
I consider myself a renewable energy advocate: after all, I work for an organization called Post Carbon Institute. I have no interest in discouraging the energy transition—quite the contrary. But I’ve concluded that many of us, like Koningstein and Fork, have been asking the wrong questions of renewables. We’ve been demanding that they continue to power a growth-based consumer economy that is inherently unsustainable for a variety of reasons (the most obvious one being that we live on a small planet with finite resources). The fact that renewables can’t do that shouldn’t actually be surprising.
What are the right questions? The first, already noted, is: What kind of society can up-to-date renewable energy sources power? The second, which is just as important: How do we go about becoming that sort of society?
As we’ll see, once we begin to frame the picture this way, it turns out to be anything but bleak.
6. A Couple of Key Concepts
Our degree of success in this all-encompassing transition will partly depend on our ability to master a couple of simple energy concepts. The first is energy returned on energy invested (EROI or EROEI). It takes energy to get energy: for example, energy is needed to drill an oil well or build a solar panel. The historic economic bonanza resulting from society’s use of fossil fuels partly ensued from the fact that, in the 20th century, only trivial amounts of energy were required for drilling or mining as compared to the gush of energy yielded. High EROEI ratios (in the range of 20:1 to 50:1 or more) for society’s energy-obtaining efforts meant that relatively little capital and labor were needed in order to supply all the energy that society could use. As a result, many people could be freed up from basic energy-producing activities (like farming), their labor being substituted by fuel-fed machines. Channeled into manufacturing and managerial jobs, these people found ways to use abundant, cheap energy to produce more goods and services. The middle class mushroomed, as did cities and suburbs. In the process, we discovered an unintended consequence of having an abundance of cheap “energy slaves” in the forms of tons of coal, barrels of oil, and cubic feet of natural gas: as manufacturing and other sectors of the economy became mechanized, many pre-industrial professions disappeared.
The EROEI ratios for fossil fuels are declining because the best-quality resources are being used up; meanwhile, the energy return figures of most renewable energy sources are relatively low compared to fossil fuels in their heyday (and this is especially true when buffering technologies—such as storage equipment, redundant capacity, and grid expansions—are accounted for).
Characteristics of energy resources (source: David Murphy). “Net Energy Ratio” in this chart is essentially the same as EROEI.
The practical result of declining overall societal EROEI will be the need to devote proportionally more capital and labor to energy production processes. This is likely to translate, for example, to the requirement for more farm labor, and to fewer opportunities in professions not centered on directly productive activities: we’ll need more people making or growing things, and fewer people marketing, advertising, financing, regulating, and litigating them. For folks who think we have way too much marketing, advertising, financialization, regulation, and litigation in our current society, this may not seem like such a bad thing; prospects are likewise favorable for those who desire more control over their time, labor, and sources of sustenance (food and energy).
A second essential energy concept has to do with the difference between embodied and operational energy. When we contemplate the energy required by an automobile, for example, we are likely to think only of the gasoline in its tank. However, a substantial amount of energy was expended in the car’s construction, in the mining of ores from which its metal components were made, in the making of the mining equipment, and so on. Further, enormous amounts of energy were spent in building the infrastructure that enables us to use the car—the systems of roads and highways, the networks of service stations, refineries, pipelines, and oil wells. The car’s gasoline supplies operational energy, but much more energy is embodied in the car itself and its support systems. This latter energy expenditure is easily overlooked.
The energy glut of the 20th century enabled us to embody energy in a mind-numbing array of buildings, infrastructure, machines, gadgets, and packaging. Middle-class families got used to buying and discarding enormous quantities of manufactured goods representing generous portions of previously expended energy. If we have less energy available to us in our renewable future, this will impact more than the operation of our machines and the lighting and heating of our buildings. It will also translate to a shrinking flow of manufactured goods that embody past energy expenditure, and a reduced ability to construct high energy-input structures. We might find we need to purchase fewer items of clothing and furniture, and fewer electronic devices, and inhabit smaller spaces. We might also use old goods longer, and re-use and re-purpose whatever can be repaired. We might need to get used to buying more basic foods again, rather than highly processed and excessively packaged food products. Exactly how far these trends might proceed is impossible to say: we are almost surely headed toward a simpler society, but no one knows ultimately how simple. Nevertheless, it’s fair to assume that this overall shift would constitute the end of consumerism (i.e., our current economic model that depends on ever-increasing consumption of consumer goods and services).Here again, there are more than a few people who believe that advanced industrial nations consume excessively, and that some simplification of rich- and middle-class lifestyles would be a good thing.
7. Transitioning Nine Sectors
When we start applying these energy principles to the systems that surround us and support our daily existence, the implications really start to get interesting. Let’s take a quick tour:
Food:Fossil fuels are currently used at every stage of growing, transporting, processing, packaging, preparing, and storing food. As those inputs are removed from food systems, it will be necessary to bring growers and consumers closer together, and to replace petrochemical-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides with agro-ecological farming methods that rely on crop rotation, intercropping, companion planting, mulching, composting, beneficial insects, and promotion of microbial activity in soils. As mentioned earlier, we will need many more farmers, especially ones with extensive practical, local ecological knowledge.
Water: Enormous amounts of energy are used in extracting, moving, and treating water; conversely, water is used in most energy production processes. We face converging water crises arising from aging infrastructure and climate change-related droughts and floods. All this suggests we must become far more water thrifty, find ways to reduce the energy used in water management, use intermittent energy sources for pumping water, and use water reservoirs for storing energy.
Resource extraction(mining, forestry, fishing): Currently, extractive industries rely almost entirely on petroleum-based fuels. Since, as we have seen, there are no good and comprehensive substitutes for these fuels, we will have to reduce resource extraction rates, reuse and recycle materials wherever possible, and employ more muscle power where possible in those extractive processes that must continue (such as forestry).
Building construction: Cement, iron, and road-building materials embody substantial amounts of energy, while large construction equipment (cranes, booms, bulldozers) requires concentrated energy for its operation. We must shift to using natural, locally available building materials, and more labor-intensive construction methods, while dramatically reducing the rate of new construction. The amount of enclosed space per person (home, work, shopping) will shrink.
Building operations: We’ve gotten used to actively heating, cooling, ventilating, and lighting our buildings with cheap, on-demand energy. We will need to maximize our passive capture of ambient, variable, solar energy using south-facing glazing, superinsulation, and thermal mass. Whatever active energy use is still required will employ efficient heat pumps and low-energy LED lighting, powered mostly by solar cells and wind turbines with minimal storage and redundancy (so as to maximize EROEI).
Manufacturing: Our current system is globalized (relying on oil-based transport systems); consumes natural gas, electricity, and oil in manufacturing processes; and uses materials that embody large amounts of energy and that are often made from fossil fuels (i.e., plastics). Lots of energy is used also in dealing with substantial flows of waste in the forms of packaging and discarded products. The economy has been fine-tuned to maximize consumption. We must shift to shortened supply chains, more localized manufacture of goods (shipping information, not products), materials with low embodied energy, and minimal packaging, while increasing our products’ reuse and repair potential. This will be, in effect, an economy fine-tuned to minimize consumption.
Health care: The high dollar cost of modern health care is a rough indication of its energy intensity. As the energy transition gains momentum, it will be necessary to identify low-energy sanitation and care options, and prioritize prevention and local disaster response preparedness. Eventually, high-energy diagnostics and extreme end-of-life interventions may simply become unaffordable. Treatment of chronic conditions may rely increasingly on herbs and other traditional therapies (in instances where their efficacy can be verified) as the pharmaceutical industry gradually loses its capability to mobilize billions of dollars to develop new, targeted drugs.
Transportation: The energy transition will require us to prioritize transport modes according to operational and embodied energy efficiency: whereas automobile and truck traffic have been richly subsidized through road building in the last seven decades, governments should instead devote funds toward electrified rail networks for both freight and passenger travel. We must also design economic and urban systems so as to reduce the need for motorized transportation—for example, by planning communities so that most essential services are within walking distance.
Source: Shrinkthatfootprint.com (data from DEFRA, EIA, EPA, Chester & Horvath)
Finance: It would appear that comparatively little energy is needed to run financial systems, as a few taps on a computer keyboard can create millions of dollars instantly and move them around the globe. Nevertheless, the energy transition has enormous implications for finance: heightened debt levels imply an increased ability to consume now with the requirement to pay later. In effect, a high-finance society stimulates consumption, whereas we need to reduce consumption. Transition strategies should therefore include goals such as the cancelation of much existing debt and reduction of the size and role of the financial system. Increasingly, we must direct investment capital toward projects that will tangibly benefit communities, rather than leaving capital investment primarily in the hands of profit-seeking individuals and corporations.
You may have noticed that suggestions in each of these categories are far from new. Organized efforts to reduce both operational and embodied energy consumption throughout society started in the 1970s, at the time of the first oil price shocks. Today there are many NGOs and university programs devoted to research on energy efficiency, and to life cycle analysis (which seeks to identify and quantify energy consumption and environmental impacts of products and industrial processes, from “cradle to grave”). Industrial ecology, biomimicry, “cradle-to-cradle” manufacturing, local food, voluntary simplicity, permaculture, and green building are just a few of the strategies have emerged in the last few decades to guide us toward a more energy-thrifty future. Most major cities now have bicycle advocacy groups, farmers markets, and energy efficiency programs. These all represent steps in the right direction.
Yet what is being done so far barely scratches the surface of what’s needed. There could be only one meaningful indication of success in all these efforts, and that would be a decline in society’s overall energy use. So far, we have seen energy declines primarily in times of severe economic recession—hardly ever purely as a result efficiency programs. What we need is not just to trim energy use here and there so as to save money, but to reconfigure entire systems to dramatically slash consumption while making much of the remaining energy consumption amenable to intermittent inputs.
Another insight that comes from scanning energy reduction strategies in various societal sectors is that efforts already underway along these lines often have side benefits. There are tangible psychological, social, and cultural payoffs associated with local food and voluntary simplicity programs, and health improvements can follow from natural, energy-efficient dwellings, walking, bicycling, and gardening. A successful energy transition will require that we find ways to maximize and celebrate these benefits, while honestly acknowledging the full human and environmental costs of our decades-long, fossil-fueled joyride.
In the march toward our energy future, the PR war between the fossil fuel industry and renewables advocates gets much of the attention. But it will be our effectiveness in the hard work of dramatically reducing and reconfiguring energy consumption—sector by sector, farm by farm, building by building, household by household, community by community—that will largely determine our overall success in what is likely to be history’s most difficult and crucially important economic shift.
8. Neither Utopia Nor Extinction
This is all politically charged. Some renewable energy advocates (particularly in the US) soft-pedal the “use less” message because we still inhabit an economy in which jobs and profits depend on stoking consumption, not cutting it. “Less” also implies “fewer”: if the amount of energy available contracts but human population continues growing, that will translate to an even sharper per capita hit. This suggests we need to start reducing population, and doing so quickly—but economists hate population decline because it compromises GDP and results in smaller generational cohorts of young workers supporting larger cohorts of retirees. Here is yet another message that just doesn’t sell. A contraction of energy, population, and the economy has only two things going for it: necessity and inevitability.
From a political standpoint, some solar and wind advocates apparently believe it makes good strategic sense to claim that a renewable future will deliver comfort, convenience, jobs, and growth—an extension of the oil-fueled 20th century, but now energized by wind and solar electrons. Regardless of whether it’s true, it is a message that appeals to a broad swath of the public. Yet most serious renewable energy scientists and analysts acknowledge that the energy transition will require changes throughout society. This latter attitude is especially prevalent in Europe, which now has practical experience integrating larger percentages of solar and wind power into electricity markets. Here in the US, though, it is common to find passionate but poorly informed climate activists who loudly proclaim that the transition can be easily and fully accomplished at no net cost. Again, this may be an effective message for rallying troops, but it ends up denying oxygen to energy conservation efforts, which are just as important.
I have good friends in the renewable energy industry who say that emphasizing the intermittency challenges of solar and wind amounts to giving more ammunition to the fossil fuel lobby. Barry Goldwater famously proclaimed that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”; in a similar spirit, some solar and wind boosters might say that a little exaggeration of renewable energy’s potential, uttered in defense of the Earth, is no sin. After all, fossil fuel interests are not bound by the need for strict veracity: they continually make absurd claims that the world has centuries’ worth of coal and gas, and decades of oil. It’s not a fair or equal fight: the size and resources of the fossil fuel industry vastly outweigh those of the renewables camp. And there could hardly be more at stake: this is war for the survival of our current civilization-supporting climate regime. Nevertheless, we will ultimately have to deal with the reality of what solar and wind can actually provide, and we will do so far more successfully if we plan and prepare ahead of time.
There are a lot of smart, dedicated people working hard to solve the problems with renewables—that is, to make it cheaper and easier for these energy sources to mimic the 24/7 reliability of fossil fuels through improvements in energy storage and related technologies. None of what I have said in this essay is meant to discourage them from that important work. The more progress they make, the better for all of us. But they’ll have more chance of success in the long run if society starts investing significant effort into adapting its energy usage to lower consumption levels, more variable sources, and more localized, distributed inputs.
The problem is, the gap between our current way of life and one that can be sustained with future energy supplies is likely to be significant. If energy declines, so will economic activity, and that will create severe political and geopolitical strains; arguably some of those are already becoming apparent. We may be headed into a crucial bottleneck; if so, our decisions now will have enormous repercussions. We therefore need an honest view of the constraints and opportunities ahead.
At this point I must address a few words to “collapsitarians” or “doomers,” who say that only utter ruin, perhaps extinction, awaits us, and that renewables won’t work at all. They may be correct in thinking that the trajectory of society this century will be comparable to the collapse of historic civilizations. However, even if that is the case, there is still a wide range of possible futures. The prospects for humanity, and the fates of many other species, hang on our actions.
What’s needed now is neither fatalism nor utopianism, but a suite of practical pathways for families and communities that lead to a real and sustainable renewable future—parachutes that will get us from a 17,000-watt society to a 2,000-watt society. We need public messages that emphasize the personal and community benefits of energy conservation, and visions of an attractive future where human needs are met with a fraction of the operational and embodied energy that industrial nations currently use. We need detailed transition plans for each major sector of the economy. We need inspiring examples, engaging stories, and opportunities for learning in depth. The transition to our real renewable future deserves a prominent, persistent place at the center of public conversation.
The Transition Network, The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, The Simplicity Institute, and many other organizations have already begun pioneering this work, and deserve support and attention. However, more framing and analysis of the issues, along the lines of this essay but in much greater depth, could also help. My organization, Post Carbon Institute, is embarking on a collaborative project to provide this. If you don’t hear much from me for a while, it’s because I’m working on it. Stay tuned.
*For the sake of simplicity, I have omitted discussion of nuclear power from this essay. There are those who say that nuclear power will, or should, play a prominent role in our energy future. I disagree with this view. Globally, nuclear power—unlike solar and wind—is contracting, not growing (China provides one of only a few exceptions to this observation). Nations are turning away from nuclear power due to the high levels of required investment—which, in virtually every case, must be underwritten by government. They are doing so also because of the high perceived risk of accidents—especially since the commencement of the ongoing catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan. Nuclear boosters advocate new fuels (thorium) or technologies (fast breeder reactors) to address these concerns. But many years of trials will be needed before these alternatives are ready to be deployed at scale; and it is unclear, even then, whether they will live up to claims and expectations.