But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.
Grandparents have a compelling relationship with time. It has been a familiar companion with whom we have travelled all our lives. However, with every passing year we know its certain departure from us is coming that much closer. This puts a keen edge to thoughts we have about things that still need to be done. This is certainly felt most powerfully in personal and family circles, but it’s now increasingly true for broader issues that will affect the future of our loved ones.
In the last post I expressed strong regret, close to anger, that in the industrialized world we have wasted precious time in confronting the reality of limits to the supply of energy from fossil fuels. At least from the time of M. King Hubbert in the 1950s leaders in government and industry have known what to expect about the future availability of energy from oil reserves. Hubbert’s graph about the blip in time which history will recall as the era of fossil fuels stands as a grimly stark signal to us that time is running out. I included Hubbert’s graph in my last post. I repeat it here to set the context for discussion about alternative sources of energy that may be available to our children and grandchildren.
We grandparents have lived our lives on the abundant up slope of the curve. Our children and grandchildren will live their lives in the increasingly difficult times of the downward slope. Their descendants will be off the curve altogether. The era of fossil fuels will be history. They may well look back and wonder how we could have been so blind and irresponsible in the way we handled energy issues—unless we change that now by acting quickly in the development of alternative energy sources. Even so, as the following discussion will show, it seems certain that our grandchildren will live in a world of less abundant energy than what we have known. We grandparents, knowing what we know about the shortage of time for radical change to begin and take hold, must decide how we will act in the time we have left for the best interests of the grandchildren we love. If we were those little ones coming into the world right now, what would we wish 60 years on our grandparents had done for us. That’s a rather riveting question, don’t you think?
It’s just simply not good enough for us to say we care and will do what we can to give our children and grandchildren a good start in the material world with whatever resources we have acquired on the abundant up slope of the energy curve. Unless we act now, with time pressing so relentlessly, to push for change in the fundamental character of the material world they will inherit, all the resources we can leave them will not keep the lights on or put good nutritional food on their tables. That is what I wish to imply in the title of this post: “Alternatives Versus Time.” It is already past time to get deadly serious about alternatives.
Putting Alternatives into Context
Let’s be clear. We are talking about a future where the ability to keep the lights of civilization turned on is pitted against the reality that fossil fuels are running out while their continuing use is pushing the possibility that we will reach a tipping point in global warming from which there will be no way back. I have not yet addressed the issue of climate change and global warming. That is coming in later posts under the Ecology banner. However, what I can say here is that one of the most important reasons for finding alternatives to fossil fuels is the need to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
Humanity is facing a classic dilemma–a choice between two equally undesirable alternatives–damned if you do continue to burn fossil fuels, and damned if you don’t. That is why the search for alternatives as our primary energy source is so critical.
One of the possible future scenarios is for the world to plough ahead burning fossil fuels at increasing rates until we draw down the oil supplies as described in the last post (Energy: The Search for the Holy Grail), and then try relying even more than we do today on coal, the original fossil fuel, and an even greater emitter of carbon dioxide than oil. Besides making it more difficult to control emissions, this would accelerate the depletion of coal reserves, which according to the analysis done by Chris Martenson in The Crash Course are nothing like the 250 years in the United States that President George W. Bush declared on public television. (He actually said “250 million years of coal left,” but I think we know what he meant to say).
If we take into account the yearly demands for more and more energy and the declining quality of coal reserves worldwide the bottom line according to Martenson “is that coal isn’t a nearly endless resource with hundreds of years of increasing production left in front of us, but a quite limited resource whose energy peak may not even be a decade away,” and that “known reserves will last between 72 and 94 years; within the life expectancy of children born today.”
One possible improvement to this gloomy prognosis would be to use natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to transition into a new future. Recent advances in extracting natural gas from shale beds around the world (using hydraulic fracturing) have opened up vast new resources, which, according to Martenson suggest that “there is ample supply of natural gas to ‘fund’ a transition period.” Other advantages of natural gas is that it can be liquefied and transported around the world with greater safety than crude oil. Moreover, again according to Martenson, it has a relatively good net energy ratio of 30:1, and it is not as heavy a contributor to carbon dioxide emissions as oil and coal. A recent e-mail communication from Dr. Kent Moors, an energy advisor in the United States, confirmed that new electricity supplies in the US are coming mostly from natural gas at the expense of coal-generated supplies. So natural gas is, indeed, the new big player in the energy future. In British Columbia, where I live, it has been embraced by the government as a vast resource to benefit the future of the Province—but at what cost?
The reason for reservations is that natural gas is still a non-renewable fossil fuel, which means that in an energy hungry world what now appear to be ample reserves can be quickly drawn down while carbon dioxide continues to be released into the atmosphere. There are also serious environmental concerns about the relatively new extraction process to “‘frac’ the tight shale open so the gas will flow” by using huge quantities of fresh water and toxic chemicals that get released into the environment. So, perhaps natural gas can be a “bridge fuel,” but the long term future of supplying energy to the world must lie elsewhere.
The Spectre of Time
But again we must raise the spectre of “time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” Not only are we rapidly running out of current easily accessible sources of energy supply, we are running out of time to bring alternatives into play. Commenting on this issue, Daniel Yergin says in The Quest “by 2030 overall global energy consumption may be 35 or 40 percent greater than it is today. The mix will probably not be too different from what it is today. Hydrocarbons will likely be somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of the overall supply. . . [The] law of long lead times still remains. It is really after 2030 that the energy system could start to look quite different as the cumulative effect of innovation and technological advance makes its full impact felt.”
If this turns out to be the future, it is likely that by 2030 concerns about global warming will be dominating everyone’s agenda. It is already a very serious issue for scientists working in the field, many of whom are increasingly frustrated and alarmed that they are unable to get governments to treat the issue with sufficient seriousness and urgency. In the January 17, 2012 issue of the PICS Climate News Scan (from the Pacific Institute of Climate Studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia) climate scientist Mark Jarrard from Simon Fraser University is reported as calling for “strong citizen action in the face of political inaction.” Whichever way we turn, the difficulty and urgency of freeing ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels in order to keep civilization going looms large.
What all of this suggests is that humanity must make a huge effort now—not next year , not even next month, but now—to move to alternatives. Martenson is calling for the “U.S. president to get on television and announce the equivalent of a World War II-era effort to immediately begin building out the necessary infrastructure [for a transition to a new energy future bridged by natural gas] to make it happen.” In the United Kingdom a similar sentiment has been expressed by “one of the environmental movement’s most influential figures” (Observer), James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia Hypothesis (now Gaia Theory) of how complex Earth systems self-regulate to maintain balance.
What several of the best thinkers and prominent environmental writers, including Lovelock, are calling for is a dramatic break with past and continuing procrastination, including a large scale commitment to return to an energy source long held in fear by both the public and politicians alike, but which new research and development suggest that a relook must be taken as the only feasible way forward. They are talking about the “nuclear option,” more specifically, to shift “base-load” capacity of utilities to generate electricity from current dependence mostly on fossil fuels to generating electricity by nuclear fission. This would mean a base-load capacity of something like 80 percent from nuclear supplemented by 20 percent from renewables.
I expect that most of my readers will react to this proposal, as I did myself, with dismay and discouragement that humanity can’t find a better way out of its dilemma. Most of us would instinctively agree with the sentiments expressed by another great thinker, E.F. Schumacher, back in the 1970s when he wrote in Small is Beautiful “of all the changes introduced by man into the household of nature, large scale nuclear fission is undoubtedly the most dangerous and profound.” Why then would equally thoughtful, informed and concerned thinkers now, forty years later, propose the nuclear option as our best hope for the future? The answer, in Lovelock’s words in The Revenge of Gaia is “because there is no other safe and reliable alternative for the large-scale production of electricity.” Moreover, continuing research and development on nuclear technology carries the potential for overcoming most of the major concerns associated with the generation of nuclear energy that have plagued this industry for many decades.
This is such a large and important issue that it requires a more thorough treatment than I can give it here. I will therefore devote the next post to its discussion. In closing this post may I ask that you reflect on the choices raised above and encourage you to do research of your own on nuclear energy and other alternatives to fossil fuels, before I take up the subject again in the next post.
Our grandchildren are depending on us to carry the torch for their future by becoming part of the informed citizenry that will pressure governments to develop policies to appeal not just to the interests of today’s voters, but to preserve what we have for those who follow us, most of whom have no voting power of their own.