What Future for the Energy Transition?

Land covered in solar panels. Neat. Tidy. Dead. Image source: American Public Power Association via Unsplash

I admit that the mini-series on the energy transition topic (titled Snippets on Energy) was a bit (too) technical and hard follow. Due to the importance of the topic however, hereby I want to give you a short and concise, not so technical summary (1). This time, instead of discussing individual aspects of energy, I’ll focus on the big picture: reviewing each energy source and showing you how I see them fitting into humanity’s grand plans for the future.

Fossil Fuels

The last 250 years was the era of fossil fuels. They’ve been the power behind the industrial revolution and all subsequent technological shifts ever since. Oil had a particularly important role as the most energy dense and widely available fuel encountered by mankind — ever. The ‘punch’ delivered per unit of weight or volume is still unparalleled today. Due to the light weight and high power of engines propelled by it, this fuel source has made long distance flight of heavy aeroplanes possible — a feat no other power source could achieve before, and ever since.

More importantly: diesel fuel (also derived from oil) made huge machinery feasible to build and operate. Trucks, carrying tons of goods across continents. Tractors and harvesters, replacing the work of hundreds (if not thousands) of people working on the fields. Huge excavators and dump-trucks, mining away and carrying hundreds of metric tons of rocks, coal and metal ores. Ships, carrying goods, containers, raw materials, food and other commodities around the planet. It’s no wonder that fossil fuels provide for more than 80% of our energy needs— just like 50 years ago.

Replacing all this with something else is a tall order.

But replace it, we must. Fossil fuels are the most polluting sources of energy: from extraction through burning, they release toxic wastes and contribute greatly to the destabilization of our climate and are greatly responsible for killing the ecosystem around us. If this alone weren’t enough, they are located in finite reserves. We are depleting them at an astonishing rate, and as I write this, we are arriving at the doorstep of their terminal decline.

Independent from our will — whether we want to use them or not — they will become ever more uneconomic to recover and thus start to slowly dwindle in availability. Peer-reviewed studies estimate that we will have some 5–30% less of them on the market by 2030, and maybe less than a third of today’s amount by the middle of the century.

That is a huge cut in overall energy availability… Let’s see if other sources of power can take up the slack.

Renewables

Let’s start by stating up front: “renewables” are not renewables. True, they use a renewable flow of energy from the Sun — but that’s all. On the other hand, they are built from special non-renewable materials. Minerals. Metals. Concrete. Plastics. Glass. And need to be replaced every fifteen to twenty-five years.

Want something truly renewable? Plant a tree and burn it. Once you start digging holes in the ground looking for finite stocks of metals and other minerals you are facing the same old depletion and pollution problem like with fossil fuels.

Recycling isn’t applicable at this stage either. We are talking about a brand new energy infrastructure replacing the old one. Oil rigs, steam turbines, pipelines and refineries provide none of the materials we need for solar panels or wind power. Besides, recycling is never 100% effective, so even in a completely circular economy you would run out materials pretty fast… Doubtful? Send me 10 dollars and I send you back 9. Then send me 9, and I send you 8. Rinse and repeat ten times… How much you have left?

This begs the question: why do we need so much materials that we are risking running out of them?

Renewables are ought to capture a very diffuse source of energy. Put into plain English: they try to arrest something delivering a very little punch — or rather: a gentle stroke — requiring a very large area to be occupied. Just compare the heat emanating from a lump of burning coal the size of your fist, to sunlight or wind hitting your palm. You can literary feel the difference…

This simple fact brings with it the need to cover an area hundred times larger (compared to fossil fuel plants) with panels or turbines… This brings with it the need to use ten times as much material: with its related mining, pollution, transportation, and destruction of natural habitats...

Is this really what we need amidst an ongoing mass-extinction?

Fortunately, this simple observation of increased material need was not lost on the International Energy Agency either:

Materials needed (demand) compared to materials that could be mined till 2030. Notice the massive departure from reality: mines take a decade or more to open, so this is pretty much what we have.

Another side effect to low energy density — besides the impossible to meet material and ecosystem costs — is usability. Modern “renewables” produce electricity, but many of the industrial processes — some are essential to the build-out or re-building of green electricity (like glass or polysilicon manufacturing) require concentrated high heat and very stable high currents: an “unresolved problem” to say the least. Amidst declining fossil fuel availability and the soon to be following declining metals “production” (2) this fact alone will be a huge obstacle to the energy transition. Renewables, in their current form, cannot provide the energy to power their own reproduction.

This is partly due to their disability to provide a high density transportation fuel. Why can’t we use batteries in mining or transportation? Well, batteries have the same energy density issue: they deliver only a quarter of the energy stored in dumb, uncooked potato… while compared to fossil fuels (with all losses accounted for) they still deliver thirty times less (!) energy per pound or kilogram. This fact alone will make long distance transport of goods and services impossible to accomplish on scales usual today, as batteries would take up at least half of the payload. Many cities do not have a railway connection, and only a small portion of the lines are electrified (not to mention seaports)— so without long distance trucking their very existence becomes questionable…

Another inherent “problem” with renewables is intermittency: the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. As wind and solar gains prominence in electricity production this intermittency will need to be dealt with, otherwise the grid itself will be destabilized: causing widespread blackouts. Electricity networks require a very stable 50/60 Hz operational frequency and a strong baseload (a minimum power level supplied 24/7).

None of these factors can be met by renewables: hence the need for natural gas to fill in the gaps during the night, or when the availability of renewables does not meet demand (for example: during still winter weather). Hence the electricity and natural gas price increase in Europe and all around the world: we need more and more of gas powered electricity to cope with the ever increasing electricity demand and to counterbalance “renewables” in the system. Again, we are down to using a fossil fuel, whose extraction has just started to hit natural limits, i.e.: cannot be expanded to meet the ever increasing demand. Another limit to growth, we have just surpassed. (Forget about the political tensions, they are used to distract the populace from this rather inconvenient fact.)

Hydrogen, Syn-fuels and Bio-fuels

The often touted solution to all of these issues above (storage, portability, high heat applications) comes in the form of hydrogen, synthetic and bio fuels. They work beautifully on paper: whenever / wherever you generate an oversupply of electricity, just use it to break down water into hydrogen an oxygen. Then all you need to do is to capture and compress Hydrogen into a liquid, and off you go: just pour it into the tank of fuel cell cars, or even any properly modified engine, as Hydrogen can be combusted just as easily as regular fuels. Easy!

This all sounds great, were it not for those pesky rules of physics. Damn. First, it takes 30% of your hard earned green energy to separate H2 from oxygen. The bond between these atoms is so strong, that it is way more energy efficient (i.e.: easier) to use methane instead as a source of hydrogen. (CH4 found in natural gas has much weaker chemical bonds.) Second, hydrogen is the smallest and lightest molecule in the entire Universe, meaning that in order to liquefy it you need to cool it down to near absolute zero temperature (below −253°C or −423°F) — a feat taking even more energy than separation to achieve… Third, in order to keep this liquid from escaping, you need to build a very robust, heavy, vacuum sealed, multi-layered steel container (no, a regular oil barrel won’t do the trick) — costing you a lot of energy to manufacture, and due to its weight, a lot of fuel to carry it around. Even with the use of these fancy expensive vacuum bottles, leakage will still be a fact of life. ‘Use it or lose it’ is the name of the game.

Mind you, technically these are not unsolvable problems. Most of them have been solved actually! You can even use the leaked gas to generate electricity on board of a carrying ship! The problem is not technical: it’s energy economics. You invest a ton of energy into building solar and wind (which themselves are nearly not as efficient as fossil fuels in generating electricity), then lose 30% of this hard earned power instantly during hydrogen separation, then another 30% or more on cooling, compression and leakage. This leaves the end user with only a third of the originally generated power.

This is a huge problem. Since there are a lot of processes that cannot be electrified, you need to use this remaining third of your power in the form of hydrogen to:

  1. replace old renewables (mining, manufacturing, transport — all in a need of a high density fuel)
  2. grow and harvest food (making fertilizers, powering heavy machinery)
  3. maintain and build infrastructure (done by using heavy machinery)
  4. transport food, building materials, raw materials (also requiring liquid fuels)

Why this is problem? Why don’t we just build more renewables to cope with all this demand? Because if you add these uses all up, chances are that there will be simply not enough Hydrogen to do all these indispensable tasks outlined above… Since the system quite probably cannot pay for itself, you are loosing energy in building every H2 manufacturing site… It is very likely, that a hydrogen-renewable economy is physically incapable to uphold itself — let alone civilization.

The same logic applies to bio-fuels, and syn-fuels: they both require heavy machinery and a stable supply of energy to make, not to mention the additional energy needed above the hydrogen process described here. It is a mathematical-physical impossibility we are attempting here.

Today, Hydrogen only seems to be working because we generate it using fossil fuels, using coal power or making it from methane. Compressing and cooling it using fossil fuels. Manufacturing and powering vessels to carry it around using fossil fuels. Mine metal ores to build ships, solar panels, wind turbines and equipment… all using fossil fuels.

This is our problem. Fossil fuels come preloaded with a lot of high density energy. Solar, wind, hydrogen are not. They are only an attempt made at capturing a diffuse flow of energy, condensing it and storing it for further use — thus mimicking oil… A process bleeding losses all the way through — obeying the laws of physics as it should (3). This is not something technology or human ingenuity can solve. This is how the laws of physics and chemistry applies to our technology. Don’t believe me? Ask a professor of chemistry who actually researched the topic.

Fusion

Then maybe fusion will save us? The holy grail of energy… We are attempting to achieve this feat since the 1950’s and after throwing millions of dollars on it, we are still on square one. We know that we can create fusion on earth in a controlled environment which may or may not produce more energy than what was used to fire it up, but it is lasting only for a couple of seconds, or minutes at best. Scientists still prognose that we are decades away from sustained fusion, but still have no clue how to tap that energy inside the reactor. Let’s be very specific here: the goal of all the experimental reactors today is to prove that fusion is technically sustainable: producing more energy than what was used to create and sustain it. The goal is not to produce electricity or to build a working power plant. That comes only thereafter.

I have two concerns here: one, material use and two, timing. Fusion reactors require superconducting magnets to operate, which in turn require very special metals to work (hundreds of thousand (!) kilometers of Niobium-Titan wire per reactor for example). While the fuel — hydrogen — might be abundant, these exotic metals are certainly not.

Remember: we are living in an era of depleting resources — affecting “renewables” already through price increases — and a very soon to be declining fossil fuel economy. What are the chances that we can successfully continue developing fusion for decades to come, then summoning all of our remaining oil to power up those excavators and trucks to mine those rare metal ores, fire up the smelters to produce those metals, and all the rest…?

The construction of a functioning test reactor (ITER) required decades of international cooperation involving 35 nations. I’m not saying that fusion is technically impossible, but faced with resource wars, climate change, and the ensuing economic collapse I see very little chance of this project continuing long into the future…

We have tried to make fusion work for 70 years. Now, we don’t have another 50 more to figure it out. Time’s up.

Nuclear

Then why don’t we build more nuclear reactors? Putting all resource, funding and political issues aside, this method alone would solve only very few of our problems today, while creating a lot more in the future. Yes, it would provide electricity, but not the high heat needed for many industrial processes. In theory you could use these reactors to produce hydrogen, but then you will be facing the exact same energy losses as seen above — resulting in the same energy poverty as in case with renewables.

Nuclear power plants are expensive to build for a reason: they require thousands and thousands of tons of concrete and high quality steel, plus of course uranium-235, which is a mere 0.72% of all the uranium on Earth. This translates into immense energy inputs up-front to make these materials available on site (to mine, concentrate, smelt, produce, transport, build). It’s no wonder these projects last for 10 to 15 years to complete and always run out of budget. Breeding reactors (still requiring a lot of raw materials) are still decades away, just like half a century ago.

And we haven’t mentioned meltdowns… but those never supposed to happen anyway, and the handling of the resulting nuclear waste is a done deal too. [sic!]

Sorry to disappoint you, but nuclear for me is a dead-end. It is as dependent on fossil fuels as any other source of power. Attempting a quick switch to nuclear would end up in a huge spike in CO2 emissions from concrete and steel; Greenland and other currently protected habitats dug up for Uranium, and eventually leading to the depletion of this crucial resource… Leaving humanity with a massive radiation problem to handle on top.

Biomass

It looks like that burning wood and other dead plant matter, or methane from decaying biomass is our last hope. And indeed it is — unless you want to operate an industrial society entirely on it. The amount of energy we get from fossil fuels is so enormous (12 times the amount we get from biomass) that we would literally need to burn the planet down to ashes in trying to keep up with the loss of coal, oil and gas.

Conclusions

Let’s face it folks: the era of abundant energy is over. We have used up a one-time mineral inheritance of fossil fuels and metals. But what is next? What will be the effects of a soon to be declining energy production from fossil fuels?

Renewables will continued to be pushed for sure, but as the situation in Europe shows right now, and as I explained above, this isn’t a long term solution. Our energy sector in general, and electricity generation in special, is highly dependent on cheap fossil fuels. Hydrogen, solar panels, wind turbines also depend on these dirty fuels in every step of their lifecycle — just like nuclear. Fusion is a pie in the sky, and burning biomass will not solve anything at scale either.

You might call this a pessimistic — even defeatist — approach to the future, but if there is any merit to the thoughts I’ve outlined above, it would — at minimum — worth a well written study. One which would be carried out by an independent body, and not founded by any of the energy industries (neither fossil fuels, nor renewables, nor nuclear). It would need to put numbers, facts and figures behind these observations above — either validating or denying them. Lacking such a study however equals to flying blind into the future with a significant risk of falling into an energy sinkhole.

Taking one step back however, this whole energy transition becomes moot… Irrelevant. None of the “solutions” outlined above addresses overshoot: the over-consumption of resources and pollution to the detriment of our natural habitat. In fact all of them would make the situation much worse: with increased mining, burning, transporting, asphalting, concrete pouring... While climate change and the mass extinction shrug and roll on unabated. Such is the nature of technical solutions.

Why do I bother to discuss the topic in such detail then? Because this is what will make the headlines in the coming years, transforming our way of life in the over-developed world more than anything else before in human history. It will start a cascade of events, until the two flying boots of climate change and ecological destruction will kick us all in the butt.

How this unwilling energy transition could play out in the coming decades will be the topic which I will explore in my next post. Stay tuned.

Until next time,

B

Notes:

(1) This is my personal viewpoint, representing none of the interests of any industry (neither fossil fuels, nor renewables).

(2) Mining faces a double whammy. From one side depletion of once rich deposits force miners to move on and mine very low quality ores, containing 1% metal and 99% rock. Sure we have plenty of this low grade shit, but who wants to mine them? The same situation is playing out with oil and gas: easy to access reserves are depleting fast, leaving fossil fuel companies with complex to drill, expensive to exploit resources —sending the cost of fuels used in mining in turn through the roof. My prediction here, is that the mining industry — due to its hopeless dependency on fossil fuels — will be going down hand in hand with oil and gas...

(3) There were a lot more energy put into the creation of oil (from plants using sunlight and the Earth’s crust using its internal heat and pressure to perform the task), than we get from a well. But this was not our problem — so far: we got it for free…

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A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation.