By Murray Grimwood*
As usual this is a once-over-lightly treatise and as usual, I give a link to what I consider the best extra reading: This. It’s a user-friendly book, free-to-download in part or whole, from the late David MacKay FRS (then Regius Professor of Engineering, University of Cambridge). It covers every energy option from every angle in simple language; a must-read for politicians, planners and those preaching perpetual profit.
All else being finite (current-technology nuclear included) – we will end up running on solar energy and solar derivatives (wind, hydro, tide, biomass). The first problem is that we have to use the existing to create the new – and the new has to be good enough to be able to perpetuate itself (the solar-powered Tesla factory being the best-known current example). And we need to do it fast – before the repercussions of using the old source, demand an increasing percentage of our time and effort.
The second problem is that nearly everything besides fossil fuels only does electricity (bio-fuels are the exception, but they compete with food for productive land and are currently only break-even in EROEI - Energy return on Energy Invested - terms). Charging, storing, discharging and transmission have always been the problems with electricity – it’s upside is that electric motors are near-perfectly efficient. So we’ll need to electrify everything we think we’ll do in the future.
There is the very real problem that future bets (debts – which you currently take on when building new infrastructure) may not be underwritten due to the lesser availability of future energy. The 2008 ‘readjustment’, counted in trillions of US dollars (called ‘lost’ but actually never underwritten) gives us a foretaste that the current system may not be able to ‘account’ for what we need. But the effort has to be made, irrespective of ‘budget’ projections, of ‘price comparisons’, of every financial – or fiscal – consideration. (Although it is inevitable that fitting into the new regime will change our financial – and fiscal – arrangements, probably beyond recognition).
Waiting for ‘the price to come down’ or judging ‘future savings’ using current ratios, are completely invalid in a dwindling energy-availability scenario. (A classic example is the pay-off time for solar panels – few of us apply an exponential increase in the future ‘price’ of energy when making the call to install. Taken to its conclusion, such a progression renders panels both priceless and unavailable – meaning they’re worth installing at any ‘price’, right now!).
The mind set change required, can be seen in the difference between those who stay off-grid and those who try but fail. It’s a micro version of the attitudinal change we have to make in terms of population/consumption/planetary resources; you simply have to learn to live within a budget. In the off-grid case, it’s an energy budget. Interestingly, you end up working with – not against – nature. If the sun shines, you turn on the washing-machine (it’s also the best day for drying on the line, as a rule) and do your other load-demanding stuff. Interestingly too, you find that a simple system working below full capacity, serves better long-term than a tricked-up one being run full-noise. There are lessons there for building societal-sized renewable energy systems.
Can we ‘grow’ on renewables?
Sorry, growth (physical growth) on this planet is well into unsustainable territory now; irrespective of the energy question. It’s already an invalid goal.
To those arguing that there is seemingly-unlimited solar energy arriving on the planet daily, I agree. But it is all doing something already; ocean currents, wind, rain, food webs, biological cycles and reflecting back into space (without which we’d cook). We commandeer a surprising portion of it for ourselves, even now – the Canterbury Plains being a classic example. As with our avoidance of CO2 mitigation, we’ve avoided renewables because they don’t support ‘growth’ of net energy at the rate we have temporarily become accustomed to. (Please read your way through the linked book before disagreeing with this paragraph).
Can we maintain our current production/consumption economy on renewables? Um, no. Which, I argue, is why we haven’t. Their EROEI is maybe equivalent to tar-sands (hydro does better, excluding build) and they only do electricity – storage being the obvious supplementary question. There is a level we will be able to achieve, but it will be less than we’ve been used to.
Efficiencies, ‘productivity’, technology
A year ago, I was discussing the energy issue on a starlit tropical beach, trade winds sighing in the palms, my rowboat pulled up alongside my companion’s flash RIB. He suggested that technology was the answer. I looked at his outboard – fuel injected, computer-controlled CDI, precision-engineered, a vast technological improvement on an old Seagull. But just like the Seagull, if it ran out of fuel, it would stop. Proof – if my companion thought it through – that technology cannot be substituted for energy. Proof too, that the cognitive capacity of the human brain is gazumped by an empty tank. Every time.
What he had, was an efficient machine for turning fossil energy into forward motion; as near efficient as thermodynamics will let us get. But (as Jevons once pointed out conceptually) there are now millions of outboard motors where there were once hundreds – the net result is no energy saving.
Productivity gains, of course, are energy efficiencies. Whether that be a trend towards slave-labour, or towards eliminating waste in the conversion of energy to work, there are obvious limits – those who desire permanent percentage gains in productivity are soon destined for permanent disappointment (the anomalous rates of post-WW2 ‘gain’ have inexorably slowed and will not return).
It requires a minimum of food energy to keep a slave alive and working. It requires a minimum of energy to raise ten tons to the top of the Rimutakas. These are immutable facts. Breed a more efficient slave by all means, flatten the Hill too – keeping track of the energy it takes to do so, of course…….
If we start from the POV (peak operating voltage) of our grandchildren in, say, 2100, we can assume they won’t want to be dealing with unmaintainable/obsolete infrastructure, or battling a warmer/stormier planet. They certainly won’t want to be addressing those things while relying solely on human labour, either. So sometime between now and then (using the fossil energy remaining while trying to stay below 2 degrees and attempting to redress the unmitigated degradation thus far) we have to give them a non-impactive energy system and a collection of infrastructure they can maintain with it. While leaving them no energy-requiring legacy of degradation or pollution, of course (as far as I can see, that last sentence rules out current-technology nuclear energy).
And we need to reiterate that the requirement is the requirement – regardless of profits, losses, growths or de-growths along the way. This morph just has to happen.
The usual first-world response to ‘We’ll have to shift to renewable energy’ is ‘Electric cars’. ‘Built using what energy, what materials, recycled to what extent and driving over what surface?’ Is my standard reply. Bitumen, for example, is made and laid using fossil fuels. You end up realizing that steel-on steel is the most energy-efficient way to roll, and that rail - electrified or bio-diesel/electric and two-way if possible – beats road every time. You end up realizing that carting 1-2 tons of metal around with you, usually to go no more than a few blocks, is a waste of energy. And of course, energy is going to ‘cost’ us more from here on – get used to it! We actually ‘value’ it far too cheaply.
Even if we applied all our discretionary energy at morphing to renewable energy, we’d be late. We probably have to discuss Nimbyism too – mea culpa rather than mea avoida. If you want your power, be prepared to see wind-turbines or solar panels (out-of-sight, out-of-mind is one of the reasons for the shortfall in current perceptions; we’ve simply lost sight of what our personal impacts are, via the supermarket shelf, the petrol bowser and the flush-button). And we need a strategic plan with all-party political support.
This country would run to a halt without fossil energy, would be in trouble feeding its city-folk shortly thereafter, and ‘market forces’ have proven incapable of effecting morphs ahead of disaster. We’re a long way from energy resilience and much of our infrastructure can best be described as ‘stranded assets in waiting’. Yet still we dither, still we buy SUVs, still our motorways clog nose-to-tail, still we exhaust, still we propose more of the problem as a solution to the problem.
That depends on socio-politics – war(s), pandemic possibilities, climate demands and financial/trading cohesion. My guess is that we have until 2030 at the very outside, to be capable of self-reliance as a New Zealand paddock stocked with five million head without external input (the biggest part of which is fossil energy). Of course, the energy demands of exporting, smelting and tourism would be missing from the ledger….. We have a big head-start in that 80% of our electricity is ‘renewable’, but (although politicians love to imply that the 80% is ‘of the total’) this is only 40% of our total energy use. Replacing (or triaging) the other 60%, particularly the portion applied to feeding ourselves, is the task ahead.
And, of course, digging up our own fossil resources has to be off the counter before we start. (a) they’re temporary, (b) some (deep offshore, Southland lignite) are so low in EROEI that they’re not worth the effort, and (c) there’s the CO2 problem. It’s not a stop-gap idea, it’s red herring. A selfish grasping at temporary straws.
Revelations (every good book should have ‘em)
Realising we were already late, I co-chaired a thing called Solar Action, a decade ago. Realising that powering-down would need demonstration, I’ve spent 16 very comfortable years on no more than 200 watts, often on much less. One of the more interesting revelations of valuing everything in energy terms, is that life gets cheaper! You need to do less ‘work’, you have more leisure – unsurprising given that your move was away from energy-poverty (slavery). You’re not much use to the produce more/consume more/trash more process, of course, but that era is well into injury time anyway – who cares?
Smart people have seen this coming for a while. Edison is reported to have said (to Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, in 1931): “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy – what a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until we run out of oil and coal before we tackle that”.
It’ll be a near-run thing……..