I would like to begin this post by reminding my readers why I chose Energy as the first of my “four Es of human destiny” critical to the future of our grandchildren. It is because energy is at the heart of everything we do. It is the core determinant of what it is physically possible for humans to do on the planet. That is the reason I put it first. In this concluding post on Energy I review what has so far been said, add one more important factor to consider, and end with a glimpse into humanity’s impossible dream.
In the preceding posts I have talked about the concern that the abundant energy we currently receive from fossil fuels will not be available to our grandchildren as it was to us. The finite supply is running out, and, besides, continuing high use of fossil fuels increases the danger of climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions. To address this fundamental challenge to our grandchildren’s well-being we have looked at the possibility of replacing fossil fuels with alternative sources, including nuclear from improved fission reactors and the possibility of fusion, and renewables from wind, water, Earth and sun. At the end of both considerations we were left with a mixture of hope and despair. Hope, because there are spectacular examples of innovative solutions; despair, because none of the alternatives are proven at the scale they will be required, and they present us with conflicting choices about which way to go.
Another Place to Look
But there is another place to look for solutions to our grandchildren’s energy problems. “It goes by different names—conservation, energy efficiency, energy productivity. It could even be called energy ingenuity—applying greater intelligence to consumption, being more clever about how energy is used—using less for the same or greater effect.” These are the words of Daniel Yergin in The Quest who also reminds us that while this option is available to us, it does not come for free. “It requires investment measured in both time and money.”
Now let me quote Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins in their 1999 book, Natural Capitalism: “At the heart of this . . . entire book, is the thesis that 90-95 percent reductions in material and energy are possible in developed nations without diminishing the quantity or quality of the services people want.” Did you get that? They say we can achieve a 90-95 percent reduction in the amount of energy we currently use and still get a good outcome! How is that possible? The authors argue that in industrial production you can compound the energy and material savings at every step of the process. They give the example of a typical pumping system in which “ten units of fuel must be burned in a power station to deliver one unit flow from a pipe. The opposite is therefore also true—saving one unit of flow in the pipe [such as by reducing flow or friction] can save ten units of fuel at the power station.” They argue that the best way to save resources and energy “is to emphasize the savings that occur closest to the customer, all the way downstream.” The key to such conservation lies in good design and intelligent use of products. Another example: “If (say) three pounds of trees must be cut in a forest in order to deliver one pound of paper, then saving that one pound of paper will avoid cutting three pounds of trees [as well as saving the energy required to cut those trees or process that one pound of paper].” Apply that thinking to the elimination of “junk mail” and unnecessary packaging and you begin to see where the savings are, and they get compounded as you move backwards up the production process.
Thinking this way also produces another kind of compounding. The authors quote Village Homes developer Michael Corbett: “ ‘You know you are on the right track when your solution for one problem accidentally solves several others. You decide to minimize automobile use to conserve fossil fuels, for example, and realize that this will reduce noise, conserve land by minimizing streets and parking, multiply opportunities for social contact, beautify the neighbourhood, and make it safer for children.’ ” Which brings us back to the idea of getting good outcome from reduced energy use.
What is the good outcome? Again the authors of Natural Capitalism encapsulate it in one sentence about what American voters are saying: “They want better schools, a better environment, safer communities, family-wage jobs, more economic security, strong family support, lower taxes, more effective governments, and more local control. In this, we are like all people and they are like us.” It is all “about the choices we can make that can start to tip economic and social outcomes in positive directions.” How can we secure such changes now and preserve them for our grandchildren? That is what this whole blog is about—and this post on conservation/efficiency is one more element.
The Most Ugly Word: WASTE
A key point in addressing the world’s demand for energy is to understand that industrial societies are incredibly wasteful. All of the writers I am reviewing here place the minimizing or elimination of waste in the industrial process as a top priority. The reference above to the claim by Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins that it is possible to achieve a 90-95 percent reduction in energy use is echoed by Frances Moore Lappé in EcoMind: “Fifty-five percent of all energy in the US economy is wasted, reports Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Other experts say it’s even worse—with 87 percent wasted.” The watchphrase for our society should be: “Stop wasting energy,” says Chris Martenson in The Crash Course. “Not stop using energy; stop wasting it.”
John Michael Greer picks up the same theme: “Coming up with new sources of energy . . . is far less important than learning to use the energy we already have in a more efficient way.” He goes on to say: “Under most circumstances . . . a dollar invested in conservation will save more energy than the same dollar invested in a form of energy generation will produce.” The essence of a strategy to deal with the end of the age of cheap energy is “that we do not need more energy. Rather, we need much less energy than we use today, and the faster and more comprehensively we carry out a radical decrease in energy use, the easier it will be to make the transition to the future.”
Good News for Grandparents
All of this is good news for grandparents. This is something we can get our teeth into. Most of us come from a time in our youth when our parents told us to turn off the lights when we left the room—that is, if we had electric lights to turn off in the first place. We also remember the energy shortages of the 1970s when the Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cut the supply of oil to industrial society. John Michael Greer refers to “the Master Conserver Program,” which ran pilot projects in Washington and Oregon states and apparently never caught on anywhere else. From “teenagers to retirees” he recalls, “we studied everything [in the auditorium of the old downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library] from thermodynamics to storm window installation and passive solar retrofits . . . Such a program could easily enough be re-launched by local governments today.”
But why wait for governments, local or otherwise? Each of us can sit down with our children and grandchildren, from age 3 onwards, and talk about ways to save energy. We can reshape the stories we tell ourselves and our grandchildren about how valuable our fossil fuels are and how we need to treat their use “as if they were [and they are] an extremely valuable, non-renewable, one-time inheritance.” (Chris Martenson, The Crash Course). What projects might we do with our grandchildren to get them thinking and acting with this kind of understanding, rather than the idea that there is an unlimited flow of electricity to our homes and gasoline to our cars coming from some great ocean of energy somewhere in the great unknown that we don’t ever have to think about?
Action on the World Stage
Despite what has been said above about the wastefulness of industrial society, Daniel Yergin in The Quest reports real efficiency gains that have been made on the world stage of industrialism. “The United States uses less than half as much energy for every unit of GDP as it did in the 1970s.” This is partly because “less of the economy—and thus of measurable GDP—is devoted to energy-intensive manufacturing.” That has been shifted to other countries with lower labour costs, so you can argue that this is just shifting the burden. Nevertheless, Yergin says that pursuing energy efficiency is a global phenomenon, with Japan playing a leading role. China, in its backhanded way, is also coming on board the efficiency train: planning to quadruple “the economy by 2020, as compared to 2000, while restraining the growth in energy demand to a doubling.”
Individual industries and companies are also investing heavily in energy efficiency. Yergin reports that Dow Chemical reduced its energy use on a worldwide basis, per pound of product, by 25 percent, a savings of the same amount of energy that “would have been more than enough to supply electricity to all of California’s residents for a year.” Similarly, the airline industry has put increasing efficiency in the use of jet fuel as a top priority to keep operating on very thin margins. Despite some backlash by the public to airline travel on “moral” grounds, Yergin reports that the number of airplanes in the skies is forecast to continually increase so that a “20 percent improvement in fuel efficiency means about a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions,” an issue of increasing concern to society. Of course, the presumption in many of these examples is continued growth, which means that energy efficiency can be a two-edged sword—you grow bigger by being more efficient so that the larger issue of impact on the environment does not improve.
So it is that in human affairs there is good news and bad news with mixed messages in between. Yergin sums it up by saying that despite the successes in reducing energy use and cost, “efficiency is at two great disadvantages. It does not have a sizable and vocal constituency of proponents. And it is not something you can reach out and touch.” He then goes on to tell a pointed anecdote about a comment from Andris Piebalgs, who was “the energy minister for all of Europe.” In answer to a question at a Washington dinner party about “the relative popularity of renewables versus efficiency” in the European Union, he said: “ ‘Renewables are more popular . . . Energy efficiency involves a lot of nitty-gritty, a lot of incentives and a lot of regulations. And there’s no red ribbon to cut [my emphasis] . . . no photo op, no opening ceremony . . . It’s very important to be able to cut a red ribbon.”
Let’s Start a Red Ribbon Campaign
To all who love children—parents, grandparents, teachers, community leaders, etc.—and to all who care for children—in schools, churches, clubs, etc.—the above story has a bold and startling implication. It raises an intriguing question and possibility. Can we position the future of the young ones as “red ribbon” opportunities for political and societal celebration? We are, after all, talking about the lives these dependent young ones will live in a future of our creation. Can we be creative and skillful enough to frame energy-saving initiatives as being equally juicy and spectacular as the opening of a new solar energy plant or a run-of-the-river hydro project or a new farm of wind turbines? Can we link the superordinate goal of restoring balance between human activity and the natural world to “red ribbon” opportunities for our children to show off their projects such that politicians will be lining up to be associated with them? Can we wrap streamers of red ribbons around the happy smiling faces of our children as they present their creative projects to an erstwhile sceptical world and invite political and other leaders to come and cut the ribbons and bring with them resources and assistance to multiply such projects many times over around the world? Can we see such enthusiastic celebrations in thousands upon thousands of homes, schools, clubs, churches—anywhere that children gather—in every nation on Earth? It’s a theme to which I will return many times in future posts, but I ask you to think about it now and begin to engage the children you love with “what if” ideas about energy-saving and ecologically-supportive initiatives that can be the next red ribbon cutting event in your community?
Energy Independence in the United States
Underlying the importance of energy efficiency is a recent comprehensive account in the February 20, 2012 issue of Macleans’. It recounts much of what I have said elsewhere about new reserves of oil and gas coming onstream in the US from new technology, but concludes with an outline of strategy proposed by an environmental group called the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC). The biggest piece of their strategy is “a major increase in fuel efficiency” in the transportation sector. The article reports on steps already taken in this direction by the Obama administration, but “under the NRDC’s plan, emissions standards should be increased further—to 60 miles per gallon by 2025—and seven percent of all passenger-vehicle miles be travelled using plug-in electric vehicles.” The conclusion of the article is that reduction in demand must be an important part of any US plan to become energy independent by 2030. However, the issue has now become highly politicized in which “pro-drilling advocates and the anti-oil advocates have taken to the barricades. . . There is little evidence of a constituency for a compromise approach that could realistically take North American energy independence from buzzword to reality.” The most likely prospect is that nothing really constructive on energy policy will be done until the real shocks hit “in waves upon waves of economic and energy security woes.” Unfortunately, this is the likely scenario for the future of energy planning, not only in the US, but worldwide, but when the shockwaves hit, energy conservation is going to have to be a big part of the reality people will face.
A Last Word in Favour of Efficiency over Renewables
If we needed further encouragement to promote the conservation/efficiency option, John Michael Greer gives it to us. He describes what he calls “the paradox of production.” What it amounts to, in brief, is the fact that in order to bring renewable sources of energy onstream we have to use our existing sources of energy, which are either in short supply or increasingly more costly, or both. “Trying to solve the energy crisis by bringing new energy sources online will drive up the cost of petroleum and other existing energy sources further than they would rise on their own . . . Pursued with enough misplaced enthusiasm, a crash program to bring some new energy source online in a hurry could drain enough energy, raw materials, labor and money out of a fragile system to drive it over the edge into collapse.”
Compared with this danger, a strategy to reduce energy use in every way and place we can should be seen as highly desirable. Yet Yergin tells us that, “Despite the mainstreaming of conservation, US residential energy consumption is 40 percent higher [now] than in the 1970s, and commercial building consumption has almost doubled.” What is going on? Yergin says “the reasons are growth and innovation.” More people, bigger houses, more air conditioning, and much more use of what he calls “gadgiwatts—more and more electricity consumed by gadgets that largely did not exist in the 1970s . . . all those devices and gadgets that have become integral to daily life and depend on the ‘gadgiwatts’—computers, printers, VCRs, fax machines, microwave ovens, telephones, cable services, flat-screen televisions, DVD players, smart phones, tablets, and any other number of hand-held devices that need to be recharged. The same thirst for energy and electricity exists in increasingly high-tech, highly wired office towers.”
The message for our grandchildren here is that the smart new world they will want to live in comes at an energy cost, so they, in the future, and all of us now, will have to become even smarter about how we conserve energy, and begin increasingly to apply the “smart technology” to the smart idea of keeping energy use within the bounds of what is possible on our planet. This can certainly be done, but it will take commitment to the conservation ethic if it is to be achieved.
Humanity’s Impossible Dream: Energy from the Zero Point Field
These ideas of innovation linked to the possible prompt me to close this post with reference to what I am calling “humanity’s impossible dream.” For me one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time is Man of La Mancha—the story of the eccentric Don Quixote and his impossible dream of righting all wrongs through valour and by upholding the knightly honour of chivalry. I remember fondly back in the summer of 1971, when I was a graduate student spending a few weeks at the Institute of the Future in Syracuse in New York State, I made a special trip to the Big Apple just to see Man of La Mancha on the Broadway stage. I was not disappointed and to this day Don Quixote’s great theme song, “Impossible Dream,” remains firmly rooted among my favourites.
So why bring that up now? Well, because two of my readers have prompted me to make reference to a source of energy for future civilization that sits well with Don Quixote’s quest for the impossible dream. I am referring to what is known as energy from the zero point field.
In an article at www.calphysics.org/zpe.html the Calphysics Institute states that “quantum physics predicts that all of space must be filled with electromagnetic zero-point fluctuations (also called the zero-point field) creating a universal sea of zero-point energy.” The amount of energy is unimaginably vast—“110 orders of magnitude greater than the radiant energy at the center of the Sun.”
There are reasons, explained by physics, as to why such a vast amount of energy is not perceptible to us, but there is “growing interest concerning the possibility of tapping zero-point energy and many claims exist of ‘over unity devices’ (gadgets yielding greater output than the required input for operation) driven by zero-point energy. In spite of the dubious nature of these claims (to date no such device has passed a rigorous, objective test), the concept of converting some amount of zero-point energy to usable energy cannot be ruled out in principle.” Many people believe that the world famous early 20th century inventor, Nicola Tesla, had discovered how to harness this energy, but his papers were confiscated at his death by the authorities and have been suppressed. There are also many reasons to believe, and a plethora of anecdotal stories to back them up, that the interests who currently control much of the world’s energy supplies (oil companies, relevant national governments, OPEC nations, etc.) would suppress any research or inventions that would threaten their monopoly by making so-called free energy available.
In the late 1990s physicists postulated the concept of an enormous amount of “dark energy” in the universe (70 percent of everything that is) and more recent work suggests that dark energy and zero point energy are one and the same. “As to whether zero-point energy may become a source of usable energy, this is considered extremely unlikely by most physicists” (my impossible dream) “and none of the claimed devices are taken seriously by the mainstream science community.”
Having said that, however, the Calphysics article concludes by referencing a patent that has been issued “and experiments are underway at the University of Colorado.” The abstract for this patent, called “Quantum Vacuum Energy Extraction,” states: “A system is disclosed for converting energy from the electromagnetic quantum vacuum available at any point in the universe in the form of heat, electricity, mechanical energy or other forms of power . . . Energy is extracted locally and replenished globally. This process may be repeated an unlimited number of times . . . The disclosed devices are scalable in size and energy output for applications ranging from replacements for small batteries to power plant sized generators of electricity.”
So there you have it! Are we on the threshold of discovering how to access unimaginable amounts of free energy from the universe around us? Will this source come onstream just when humanity is in a desperate struggle to rectify abuses we have made using another vast supply of energy from fossil fuels?
I would argue that it is advisable for us to find solutions to how to live better together within the realities of planetary boundaries before we go wishing for an unlimited supply of free energy. Certainly we know and can already see the seriousness of the challenges now facing us, so they must be the focus of our immediate and earnest attention.
If a future “ecotechnic society” powered by unlimited energy from the zero point field awaits us, so be it! Our task now is to rein in the waste, preserve what we have, and learn to live more lightly on the planet, so that our grandchildren may not have the option foreclosed of achieving the impossible dream (whatever it may be) before they have the chance to realize it.