Before the age of machines powered by energy derived from fossil fuels, humanity lived much closer to the Earth. Agriculture was the predominant industry where most people worked growing food for themselves and those who lived in nearby villages, small towns and moderately sized cities. The discovery of the concentrated energy in a lump of coal and a barrel of oil changed everything. In a brief time span of about 200 years industrialization took hold and became the dominant form of civilization around the world. Human beings were transformed into the god species, to use Mark Lynas’s term, empowered to literally transform everything around us and create previously undreamed of lifestyles of comfort, luxury and opulence for millions of people around the world. Not everyone benefitted equally—but, of course, they never had—and while most of us flourished we could imagine that the future could only get better and better for more and more as the generations rolled along. That was a twentieth century dream. In the twenty-first, not so much. Because we forgot how much we are still connected to the Earth, despite our god-like power.
The situation now facing industrial civilization requires us to clearly understand what has happened to the twentieth century dream and what it means for current and future generations. One of the best ways to get this understanding is through metaphor. A metaphor provides an image or picture that our visually attuned minds can readily grasp. Knowing this, John Michael Greer in The Ecotechnic Future uses a metaphor in the form of a vivid analogy of what happened to humanity when we discovered the stored up energy in fossil fuels and released it.
“Imagine,” says Greer, “how the lives of field mice would be transformed if a truck full of grain overturned on the nearby freeway and spilled its load in their meadow.” With such a bonanza of so much food energy their community would thrive and grow as never before. Until the grain was all used up. At that time the mice would return to being dependent on the food in the meadow. Not only could the meadow not support the expanded population of mice, but in the process it may become damaged so that its carrying capacity is decreased from what it was before the truck overturned.
Of course, it’s not a perfect analogy. Human beings are not as limited in their options as mice in a meadow; but I think we can get the picture.
Chris Turner in The Leap offers a different kind of metaphor intended to inspire rather than depress us. “First, imagine,” he says, “our hypermodern, speed-of-light digital society as a train on a long, transcontinental track.” Seated in our comfortable, air-conditioned, contoured seats, we look out the window and become aware that our train is running along beside a great chasm. Suddenly the train starts to bounce and shake as if the rails are buckled and it seems in danger of coming off the track and plunging into the chasm, taking all of us passengers with it. Then we see through the window on the other side of the chasm another train zipping along quite nicely on a gleaming new track, and veering away from the dreadful void that threatens to swallow us. A fellow passenger on our train yells at us that we have to leap sideways, over the chasm, onto the other train before it’s too late. That fellow passenger is the author himself, Chris Turner, telling us we must make the Great Leap Sideways onto the new train heading toward a better future than where our present train will take us.
Again, I think we can get the picture. Turner aims to convince us we can overcome threatening disruptions in energy supplies by turning to alternatives without missing too much of a beat on our journey to a future global industrial civilization. Greer does not see things that way. He sees the coming of “scarcity industrialism” where we will be trying to salvage what we can in a world where our grandchildren will hopefully discover along the way that the excesses of current industrialism were not worth preserving anyway.
The reason I begin this post with these two metaphors is to set the context for understanding how society running on energy from renewable sources must, of necessity, be different from the one we have built by feasting on a windfall of energy from non-renewable fossil fuels—Greer’s overturned truckload of grain.
The Power of Meaning and Purpose
Psychologists will tell us that one of the most important determinants of a happy life is to find meaning and purpose in what you do. As for the individual, so for the society. For our society to be successful we must feel that collectively we are embarked on activities that sustain some greater good. A second determinant of happiness is meaningful relationships. A successful society will create opportunities for its citizens to be engaged in activities together that they find enriching. There are other factors for success, but, to misquote St. Matthew, “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” If our grandchildren are going to have successful happy lives, we must give them the best foundation we can for pursuing purposeful activity that they do together. Struggling to survive economic and social collapse through serious and continuing disruption of energy supplies in a deteriorating physical environment, would not be a wonderful legacy to leave. Sadly, that is the path we are now on, unless we make the great leap Chris Turner is urging us to take. It is in this context that we should now look at the possibilities of servicing future society with energy from so-called renewable sources.
Wind, Water, Earth and Sun
When we speak of “renewables” we are talking about energy that comes from sources that are part of our everyday lives: wind that blows, water that flows, tides that rise and fall, and the sun that shines. It also includes energy that can be drawn from the heat within and the Earth, and energy that can be extracted from biomass. Our ancestors knew about all of these, but they were unable to harness them, or concentrate the energy in any substantial way, or move it from where it was to another place where it might be needed. The question facing us today is whether we can, using technology derived from the era of fossil fuels, overcome those previously insurmountable obstacles. In so doing can we also learn once again to appreciate our connection to the Earth and create what John Michael Greer calls an “ecotechnic society” in which humanity uses technology to embrace the rhythms of the natural world, rather than seek to overwhelm them? Might that kind of society be the dream we hold for our grandchildren?
An Unforgiving Ratio
In moving along such a path as we are now discussing, we quickly come up against an inescapable reality, the concept of net energy, and an unforgiving ratio called Energy Return on Investment (EROI). Quite simply, we have to recognize that in order to produce energy we have to consume energy. If we are trying to light an electric light bulb, for example, by turning the handle on a bench-top generator, we have to put the energy from our muscles into turning the handle in order to produce the electrical energy that lights the bulb. The “net energy” is simply the amount of energy that remains after we have put energy in to produce it. If we put a small amount of energy in to get a lot of energy out, then the net energy is high—and that’s good. If the energy we put in is only slightly less than the energy we get out, then the net energy is low—and that’s not so good. If we put in more energy than we get out, the net energy is negative, and we should forget the whole idea.
All of the forms of energy we are talking about from renewable sources require us to put energy in, whether we are building wind towers, or manufacturing solar panels, or constructing dams to generate hydroelectricity. If we had to do that using energy generated from renewables, the whole thing would be a non-starter. Fortunately, however, we still have the energy available from fossil fuels to enable us to do these things, but for how much longer at the rate we are now burning up our fossil fuel supply? Moreover, the extraction of fossil fuels is subject to the same net energy equation as the construction of products to produce renewable energy. Much of the oil, for example, being brought up from under the ocean floor, or being dredged out of the Alberta oil sands, requires a tremendous amount of energy to be “invested” in order to get it out. The net energy is much lower than it was when we had gushers in Texas and the original vast oil fields of the Middle East.
This brings us to the unforgiving ratio—EROI (Energy Return on Investment). David Fridley writes about this issue in an article entitled “Nine Challenges of Alternative Energy” in The Post Carbon Reader (2010). He cites a 2008 study that “estimates the minimum EROI for the maintenance of industrial society is 5:1.” This means that no more than 20 percent of social and economic resources can be devoted to the production of energy, otherwise industrial society will begin to unravel. Most alternatives to fossil fuels have a low EROI, which means that society is going to have to be very careful in allocating scarce resources of existing energy and finances in order to create that shiny new track to the future that Chris Turner writes about. Fridley contends that EROI is not well understood in either government or industry where much narrower views of simple financial payback are used in investment decisions. In this way some people get very rich, but society as a whole slips into greater instability.
As mentioned above EROI is also a problem for converting current supplies of fossil fuels to usable energy. A current example of an EROI study that illustrates this point is reported in the Tyee News on February 8, 2012 concerning the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to move bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to the BC coast for export. According to the Tyee, “A BC engineering consulting firm claims it has hard numerical proof that Enbridge’s Northern Gateway proposal augurs poorly for the future of modern society . . . What C.J. Peter Associates found when it analysed each stage of the Northern Gateway’s global supply chain, is that getting oil sands bitumen from Alberta to China requires so much energy it might not be worth the effort.” The article also quotes Charles Hall, “a prominent energy analyst and ecologist at the State University of New York . . . What his research has shown is that the effort modern society puts into producing energy has grown steadily over the past few generations. And we may soon reach a point, Hall argues in a 2009 study, where ‘oil and eventually gas will cease to be a net source of energy.’ ”
Other Challenges for Renewables
So EROI is a problem for both fossil fuels and renewables. However, renewables face several other challenges. All of us know that the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. This is the problem of intermittency, which means that we have to find new and ingenious ways of storing electricity at a grid level in order to ensure that power will always be there when people need it. Mark Lynas in The God Species puts this challenge at the top of his list for research and development: “Figuring out how to store electricity reliably, efficiently and on a massive scale is probably humanity’s greatest single technological challenge.”
Energy density is another major challenge in shifting to renewables. This refers to the amount of energy contained in one unit of an energy source. Fossil fuels have a high energy density. You get a lot of energy from a small quantity of fuel. Renewables are not so good. To power an electric car you need a very large and heavy battery pack. To power a city you need a lot of space for the energy source. Fridley states that to replace a 1000-megawatt coal-fired power plant you would need 20-50 square kilometres of land for a solar plant or up to 150 square kilometres of wind towers. This brings up the problem of siting. Where are you going to put such installations? People don’t want wind towers in their back yards, so off-shore or remote land locations are being used, but then you’ve got transmission challenges to move the energy to where the people are. Putting solar panels on existing roof tops is another possibility, but the scale is enormous.
Talking about scale brings up other challenges. Fridley points out that many alternatives such as algae-based diesel and thin-film solar have been successfully demonstrated at the small scale, but this does not indicate they can be successfully used in large scale production. Related to this is the requirement for material inputs. For example, thin-film solar uses a rare element called indium, which is already used as a component of flat-screen monitors. A 2007 study found that at current rates of consumption, known reserves of indium would last just thirteen years.
And so it goes on. Challenges abound whichever way we turn. However, it is not my intention here to just cite the difficulties, but rather to emphasize how urgent and deliberate and focused and cooperative our collective effort must now be if we are to bequeath a good energy future to our grandchildren. Investors simply looking to get rich, politicians aiming merely to score points off opponents, corporate leaders seeking only to maximize profits while exploiting the Earth’s commons and limited reserves—all these will be the bane of our grandchildren’s future. Enlightened citizen advocacy is required of all of us if we are to be more a part of the solution than we are a part of the problem.
However, there is one thing on which all of the writers I am reviewing here agree: energy from renewables must be increasingly more and more part of the future energy mix. To illustrate how big a jump that will be for some countries I can quote figures for the United States given in an article on nuclear energy in the March 2012 issue of Prevention. The proportion of the current US electrical energy supply from renewables is reported as follows: hydroelectricity, 2.5%; wind, 1%; solar, biomass and geothermal, all less than 1%. The mix is much better in other countries like Germany, which has moved, according to Frances Moore Lappé (2011), from virtually no renewable energy in the early 1990s but is “now on track to get 35 percent of its electricity from green sources in ten years.” How did Germany do it? Its accomplishment gives us a good lead-in to look at some of the inspirational success stories and promising ideas that are already out there.
Germany’s Great Leap Sideways
No one is more enthusiastic in writing about positive initiatives to implement renewable energy solutions than Chris Turner. In The Leap (2011) he describes, for example, “the single greatest leap toward sustainability yet launched—The Leap in energy policy made by Germany at national scale over the last ten years.” The key was a piece of legislation introduced in 2000 known as a “feed-in tariff.” This obliged the companies who transmit electricity from power plants to customers “to buy power from renewable sources at rates far above the standard rate for electricity.” The renewable sources came to be hundreds of thousands of German households who installed solar panels on their roofs and now sell power back to the grid at a premium, while only paying a modest surcharge for the electricity they use of about €4 (about $5) on the average household electricity bill. Turner describes this as a “gamechanger” that “transformed the global solar industry almost overnight” and put Germany at the forefront of the industry worldwide, even though the country is in a northern clime not particularly noted for its sunny days. Moreover, as reported by Frances Moore Lappé in EcoMind, the “simple tool” developed in Germany “has already spread to over eighty-two countries, states, provinces, and municipalities.”
Denmark’s Smart Grid Initiative
With equal enthusiasm Turner describes tiny Denmark’s “trailblazing experiment in smart-grid development.” For a generation the Danes had been leaders in wind energy production, but they continually struggled with the intermittency problem. Then in 2008 they hit on the idea of expanding the nation’s electrical vehicle fleet and using the car batteries to store electricity generated overnight at the time when the wind blows strongest, but when energy demand is lowest. During the day when electricity demand peaks and the wind drops off, the car owners can feed the energy from the batteries in their cars now parked at the office back into the grid at a premium.
Many Other Examples
Chris Turner’s book, The Leap, is filled with stories like this from many countries all over the world. He cites psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s work in behavioural economics as key to understanding how ordinary people can be brought onside to become part of the solution. They are persuaded not so much by logic or reason (including lower price), and certainly not by castigation or guilt, but more by feeling comfortable in their own skin about an idea. For example: “If your neighbors are doing it, it means it’s feasible. It’s practicable. You can do it—people like you.” Nor should we be surprised if solutions come from unanticipated places—like India and China, who, while they are ecological nightmares now and will continue to be so for at least another ten years, are already world leaders in clean energy and “could be preparing for a jump to the front ranks of the twenty-first century’s sustainable global economy.”
A word should be said, too, about hydrogen as a source of energy in the future. While it is abundant, it is not exactly a renewable source. There are two main problems: how to produce it and how to utilize it in a commercial way. Producing it by electrolysis from water requires electricity in the first place. Producing it from natural gas and petroleum (the most common method today) is no solution. Graeme Maxton says in The End of Progress, “we cannot sustain a new hydrogen-based world by producing fuel from the materials we are trying to replace.” Moreover, hydrogen fuel cell technology is expensive and “much of the material that goes into manufacturing them, such as platinum, is in short supply.” Maxton’s conclusion is that if hydrogen power has a future, it is only in the long term (at least 30 years) “assuming we can produce it efficiently, perhaps using nuclear power . . . or by using some renewable source.” Though hydrogen has enormous potential benefits because of its abundance, its other major problems are storage and distribution. We just don’t have the understanding and capacity to consider it as an immediate solution to the coming energy crisis.
Shifting the Energy Paradigm
I said at the beginning of this post that moving to a fossil-fuel based industrial society took humanity away from appreciating how closely we are connected to and dependent upon the Earth. In this way we lost our sense of responsibility as ecological citizens. Our activities have already caused large scale ecological destruction around the world and they are now precipitating potentially devastating climate change. I have said also that the greatest benefit we could bequeath to our grandchildren would be support and encouragement to pursue a superordinate goal of restoring balance between human activity and the natural systems on which all life depends. Because energy use is central to all human activity, it is imperative therefore that we shift the energy paradigm in a direction consistent with that superordinate goal. The key would be for people to take increasing responsibility both individually and collectively for producing the energy we use as individuals and as a society.
What does this mean? Essentially, it entails moving away from a model of centralized power generation (now done in plants powered by coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear and hydro) and moving towards a decentralized, distributed system in which a large portion of the total energy used in any community is generated by the individual households and businesses within that community.
This concept is at the heart of the “great leap” already taken by Germany. Could it be done all over the world? The scale would be enormous and the time, as I have said before, in which we must make the change before monumental problems overwhelm us, is short. Are human beings up to the challenge? We certainly won’t know if we don’t try.
To that end I would like to report briefly on conceptual work being done by a colleague of mine in the United Kingdom, Frank Parkinson, who has shared with me in private correspondence a draft manuscript entitled “Energy Challenge and Response.”
Frank describes his proposed solution to energy production as “microgeneration from renewable sources and, in particular, a total redesign of the domestic house which will enable it to generate reliably more electricity than it consumes.” He calls this the “energy-plus house” or “E-plus” for short, which is the generic name “given to a house which is either designed from the start as an electricity generating station or retrofitted with that purpose in mind . . . As conceived, it will not only provide all the energy that the average house needs, but a surplus will be fed to the National Grid,” as has already been successfully demonstrated in Germany.
Frank acknowledges that there are enormous research and development issues involved, but to catch the vision he foresees that if twenty million homes in the United Kingdom were so designed or adapted “the shape and function of the National Grid would be irrevocably changed.” It would require a profound revolution to raise the consciousness of a whole nation to achieve such a change. But that is more the strength of the proposal than its weakness. The enormity of the crisis facing humanity if the energy problem is not solved in a sustainable way is such that nothing less than a profound rise in the collective consciousness of citizens everywhere will suffice to meet the challenge. If it can be done in Germany and the United Kingdom then it could be done around the world. It would be a new great project for humankind, and certainly one worthy to promote to our grandchildren.
Some Breaking News in Canada
Just as I was finalizing this post, a report appeared in the Globe and Mail on February 17, 2012 of a study conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Waterloo (Canada) and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo on “a visionary outline for a future less reliant on fossil fuels.” The study was scheduled to be released in Vancouver on February 18, 2012 at the conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science being held in that city. According to the Globe and Mail report, the study covers and confirms much of what I have already reported in this post and the previous one on nuclear energy. An additional and noteworthy piece of information was on a “promising technology” for electricity storage using an “electrochemical battery, which is fueled by electrolytes rather than lithium ions. . . But commercialization of the electrochemical battery remains elusive.” On another source, geothermal energy, the study confirms its abundance and potential using a process similar to hydraulic fracturing used in the extraction of natural gas from shale, but in this case “allowing geothermal power to be extracted.” All of this and more highlights the potential for alternatives to fossil fuels, if authorities are prepared to make hard decisions on supporting research and development of alternative sources.
Tapping All the Sources
A shift in paradigm away from fossil fuels involves looking to alternatives everywhere: to the potential for “clean energy underfoot” as proclaimed by a headline in the Vancouver Sun on September 14, 2011, citing a federal report on the “massive” store of accessible geothermal energy underground in various parts of Canada; to the idea expressed by Mark Lynas in The God Species of generating one fifth of Europe’s electricity using “solar panels in the Sahara with the power carried under the Mediterranean Sea via high voltage cables;” to embarking on similar projects to utilize the enormous solar potential in the southwestern United States and in the outback of Australia; to the example (described by Chris Turner in The Leap) set by Norway’s Statoil of converting its off-shore drilling rigs in the North Sea to platforms for wind turbines and in the process becoming “one of the world’s major wind developers;” to the electrification of vehicle fleets in nations all over the world now getting underway in earnest; to the untold myriad of possibilities for generating the energy humanity needs by mobilizing another kind of power freely available everywhere—the creative power of the human mind.
Can It Be Done?
Can it be done? The obstacles are enormous. The financial costs are monumental. The inertia of existing economic and political structures are mindboggingly obstructive. The potential for the worst in human nature to trump the best is always a threat. We will examine all of these dangers, pitfalls and black holes in coming posts.
But suffice it to say here that the outline of real, potentially transformative initiatives is clear. They provide the best hope for our grandchildren. The responsibility of each one of us in a position of influence is to stay focused on the bigger picture and never forget that the young ones are depending on us.