Citizen Action Monitor

Will our energy future be fueled by fossils or by abundant, renewable wind and sunlight?

“The gap between our current way of life and one that can be sustained with future energy supplies is likely to be significant,” says Richard Heinberg

No 1271 Posted by fw, March 3, 2015

Richard Heinberg

Richard Heinberg

“Will our energy future be fueled by fossils (with or without carbon capture technology), or powered by abundant, renewable wind and sunlight? Does the truth lie somewhere between these extremes—that is, does an “all of the above” energy future await us? Or is our energy destiny located in a Terra Incognita that neither fossil fuel promoters nor renewable energy advocates talk much about? As maddening as it may be, the latter conclusion may be the one best supported by the facts. If that uncharted land had a motto, it might be, ‘How we use energy is as important as how we get it.’” Richard Heinberg. Post Carbon Institute

Heinberg, Senior Fellow-in-Residence of the Post Carbon Institute, is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost Peak Oil educators. In this abridged cross-post, focusing entirely on the introductory and concluding passages of his very long essay, Richard comes to a startling conclusion, alluded to in the above excerpt, and fully clarified below in his conclusion.

To read the complete essay of 7,000 words, with copious graphs and photos, click on the following linked title. Alternatively, below is an abridged version, with added subheadings and highlighted text. Omitted are 7 sections of supporting evidence: 1) Unburnable Fossils and Intermittent Electricity; 2) The Liquid Fuels Substitution Quandary; 3) How much energy will we have? 4) A Possible Outcome of Current Energy Trends; 5) Googling Questions; 6) A Couple of Key Concepts; 7) Transitioning Nine Sectors.

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Our Renewable Future by Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute, January 21, 2015

Or, What I’ve Learned in 12 Years Writing about Energy

What the fossil fuel industry wants you to believe

Folks who pay attention to energy and climate issues are regularly treated to two competing depictions of society’s energy options [excluding nuclear]. On one hand, the fossil fuel industry claims that its products deliver unique economic benefits, and that giving up coal, oil, and natural gas in favor of renewable energy sources like solar and wind will entail sacrifice and suffering (this gives a flavor of their argument). Saving the climate may not be worth the trouble, they say, unless we can find affordable ways to capture and sequester carbon as we continue burning fossil fuels.

Versus the renewable energy pitch

On the other hand, at least some renewable energy proponents tell us there is plenty of wind and sun, the fuel is free, and the only thing standing between us and a climate-protected world of plentiful, sustainable, “green” energy, jobs, and economic growth is the political clout of the coal, oil, and gas industries (here is a taste of that line of thought).

In fact, our energy destiny will be the one best supported by the facts. But what are “the facts”?

Which message is right? Will our energy future be fueled by fossils (with or without carbon capture technology), or powered by abundant, renewable wind and sunlight? Does the truth lie somewhere between these extremes—that is, does an “all of the above” energy future await us? Or is our energy destiny located in a Terra Incognita that neither fossil fuel promoters nor renewable energy advocates talk much about? As maddening as it may be, the latter conclusion may be the one best supported by the facts.

If that uncharted land had a motto, it might be, “How we use energy is as important as how we get it.”

***** End of Introduction *****

 [Conclusion] 8. Neither Utopia Nor Extinction

This is all politically charged. Some renewable energy advocates (particularly in the US) soft-pedal the “use less” message because we still inhabit an economy in which jobs and profits depend on stoking consumption, not cutting it. “Less” also implies “fewer”: if the amount of energy available contracts but human population continues growing, that will translate to an even sharper per capita hit. This suggests we need to start reducing population, and doing so quickly—but economists hate population decline because it compromises GDP and results in smaller generational cohorts of young workers supporting larger cohorts of retirees. Here is yet another message that just doesn’t sell. A contraction of energy, population, and the economy has only two things going for it: necessity and inevitability.

Serious renewable energy scientists claim an energy transition will require “changes throughout society”

From a political standpoint, some solar and wind advocates apparently believe it makes good strategic sense to claim that a renewable future will deliver comfort, convenience, jobs, and growth—an extension of the oil-fueled 20th century, but now energized by wind and solar electrons. Regardless of whether it’s true, it is a message that appeals to a broad swath of the public. Yet most serious renewable energy scientists and analysts acknowledge that the energy transition will require changes throughout society. This latter attitude is especially prevalent in Europe, which now has practical experience integrating larger percentages of solar and wind power into electricity markets. Here in the US, though, it is common to find passionate but poorly informed climate activists who loudly proclaim that the transition can be easily and fully accomplished at no net cost. Again, this may be an effective message for rallying troops, but it ends up denying oxygen to energy conservation efforts, which are just as important.

Ultimately, renewable enthusiasts will have to ignore renewable hype and deal with reality

I have good friends in the renewable energy industry who say that emphasizing the intermittency challenges of solar and wind amounts to giving more ammunition to the fossil fuel lobby. Barry Goldwater famously proclaimed that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”; in a similar spirit, some solar and wind boosters might say that a little exaggeration of renewable energy’s potential, uttered in defense of the Earth, is no sin. After all, fossil fuel interests are not bound by the need for strict veracity: they continually make absurd claims that the world has centuries’ worth of coal and gas, and decades of oil. It’s not a fair or equal fight: the size and resources of the fossil fuel industry vastly outweigh those of the renewables camp. And there could hardly be more at stake: this is war for the survival of our current civilization-supporting climate regime. Nevertheless, we will ultimately have to deal with the reality of what solar and wind can actually provide, and we will do so far more successfully if we plan and prepare ahead of time.

Humanity’s future prospects are tied to adaptation to lower energy consumption levels

There are a lot of smart, dedicated people working hard to solve the problems with renewables—that is, to make it cheaper and easier for these energy sources to mimic the 24/7 reliability of fossil fuels through improvements in energy storage and related technologies. None of what I have said in this essay is meant to discourage them from that important work. The more progress they make, the better for all of us. But they’ll have more chance of success in the long run if society starts investing significant effort into adapting its energy usage to lower consumption levels, more variable sources, and more localized, distributed inputs.

In terms of energy use, there’s a significant gap between our current way of life and a future sustainable way of life

The problem is, the gap between our current way of life and one that can be sustained with future energy supplies is likely to be significant. If energy declines, so will economic activity, and that will create severe political and geopolitical strains; arguably some of those are already becoming apparent. We may be headed into a crucial bottleneck; if so, our decisions now will have enormous repercussions. We therefore need an honest view of the constraints and opportunities ahead.

We know what we need to do to avoid ecological and societal collapse, the question is are we up to the challenge?

At this point I must address a few words to “collapsitarians” or “doomers,” who say that only utter ruin, perhaps extinction, awaits us, and that renewables won’t work at all. They may be correct in thinking that the trajectory of society this century will be comparable to the collapse of historic civilizations. However, even if that is the case, there is still a wide range of possible futures. The prospects for humanity, and the fates of many other species, hang on our actions.

What’s needed now is neither fatalism nor utopianism, but a suite of practical pathways for families and communities that lead to a real and sustainable renewable future—parachutes that will get us from a 17,000-watt society to a 2,000-watt society. We need public messages that emphasize the personal and community benefits of energy conservation, and visions of an attractive future where human needs are met with a fraction of the operational and embodied energy that industrial nations currently use. We need detailed transition plans for each major sector of the economy. We need inspiring examples, engaging stories, and opportunities for learning in depth. The transition to our real renewable future deserves a prominent, persistent place at the center of public conversation.

The Transition NetworkThe Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, The Simplicity Institute, and many other organizations have already begun pioneering this work, and deserve support and attention. However, more framing and analysis of the issues, along the lines of this essay but in much greater depth, could also help. My organization, Post Carbon Institute, is embarking on a collaborative project to provide this. If you don’t hear much from me for a while, it’s because I’m working on it. Stay tuned.

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