We talk a lot about energy today. How important it is to our lives and to the economy. How it makes growth possible. How green it must become. Most of these discussions however end up in a very few quantitative measurements of Gigawatts or kg-s of CO2. What rarely — if ever — gets mentioned is the quality of a given energy resource, be it coal, petroleum or “renewables” — let alone how a given source of power affects the quality of the entire energy system.
In order to understand what we are facing when we talk about the energy transition, we need to see the whole dilemma from above, a thirty-thousand-feet-view if you like. In order to achieve that, I’m starting a series of bite-size posts on the topic — titled Snippets on Energy. In these short essays I will focus on the quality aspects of energy, and the interconnection between these requirements. As you will see, there is much more to the topic than CO2 content.
A list of imperatives
We, who live in complex industrial societies need energy for various purposes. Thus there are several qualitative requirements an energy resource, and the system as a whole must meet. After listening to countless hours of podcasts and interviews made with energy experts, reading a considerable amount of scientific publications and analysis on the topic, I’ve collected the following list of requirements on energy, when it comes to powering a complex society. I’m going to address each one in a series of short posts in the upcoming weeks.
- High energy density
- Low resource intensity
- Flexible, scalable and unlimited supply
- Affordability, high EROEI
- Portability, and an ability to be stored and used at will
- Uninterrupted, 24/7 availability
- Wide range of uses
- Low environmental and health impacts
Of course there is no energy resource which meets all of these requirements — that would be Magic by definition (at least how everyday people think of it). Oil comes pretty close in almost every aspect, but it also comes at a price, a true Faustian bargain. It has powered our civilization and gave the Western world unprecedented prosperity. At the same time it had (and continues to have) a huge environmental impact: aka climate change, as well as causing air pollution, poisoning ground- and surface-waters, destroying habitats and nations. Besides, it has the annoying tendency of being finite, and wells drilled to obtain it do tend to deplete. I’m sorry, but we will be slowly running out of it in the coming decades — together with natural gas and coal. Much sooner than they would cause 6 °C of warming. The resulting 3-4 degrees will be unbearable in many respects nonetheless, but that is a topic for another day.
The crux of our predicament
What about alternative energy resources? They come nowhere near close to oil. By the end of this series of posts you will see, that there is no magic bullet solution, only magical thinking when it comes to decarbonisation. When we loose (or leave behind) oil, there will be nothing left to fill in the gap in our energy system. Oil has become the master resource: if you plug it out, the whole system crashes down.
Before you label me a fossil fuel lobbyist, let me remind you, that I don’t think any of the fossil fuels are good. They have brought havoc to this planet and we would be in a much better shape, if we had not found them in the first place. They are like drugs: addictive. At first, they make you feel great, but will inevitably ruin you in the process, and will lead you to overdose yourself.
Our civilization, and the only livable planet we have, suffers from us being overdosed by fossil fuels. We have become too numerous, consume too much land, resources and energy — leaving room to no other creature — while polluting and destroying much more than our environment can handle. We are in overshoot. So much so, that now we have unleashed a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. We have started the 6th mass extinction — which might bring about our own demise too. (If you have only 42 minutes to understand what is really going on our planet besides climate change, watch this very informative presentation.)
Even if we would discover a magical energy source tomorrow (fulfilling all of the requirements above), it would most probably result in an even faster, and perhaps the utter destruction of the planet by humans… Much sooner than we could find a new home. Based on our track record of over-fishing the oceans, chopping down forests, overpopulating continents and digging up everything for minerals, you can be sure that humanity, armed with a “clean and abundant” energy resource, would destroy what little is left of planet Earth in a matter of decades. The question, namely how do we decarbonise energy production, is thus very single minded and — as you will see — will continue to lead us in the wrong direction.
Nevertheless, I want to educate you, and open your eyes to a much broader look on energy. I want you to see how planet wrecking fossil fuels enabled our civilization and how they will cause its demise, and how doubtful our attempts are at replacing them with anything else. I know it sounds dire. Like a curse — and indeed it is. The Devil was not joking when he signed his Faustian bargain with us. As always with such curses however, there is an escape hatch — but in order to grasp it, you must be ready to leave your old assumptions behind. As Sherlock Holmes famously put it:
“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
See you next time on the first installment of Snippets on Energy, the first step in an attempt made at eliminating the impossible.