Citizen Action Monitor

It’s inevitable that we will have less total energy in our renewable future, says Richard Heinberg

The fact is, “There’s just no good comprehensive renewable substitute for oil”

No 1320 Posted by fw, April 27, 2015

“If we look realistically at the challenge, it seems inevitable that we will have less total energy in our renewable future. And the nature of that energy will require us to change our habits and expectations. None of this is meant to discourage solar or wind. They are our two best alternative energy sources, and we need to expand them as quickly as possible. But it will help if we prepare for the transition in every part of life, every aspect of society. That means localizing our economies, electrifying all of the energy-consuming activities that we can, and finding ways to reduce our overall energy consumption.”Richard Heinberg

So concludes Richard in the following short video of his talk, Our Renewable Future. By implication, our lifestyles will change significantly.

In the video embedded below — part three of a four-part series — Richard addresses two pivotal questions about renewables: Can we keep growing the economy and avoid diminishing returns by switching energy sources? The transition to renewable solar and wind technology is both necessary and inevitable — But can it solve all our problems? 

Richard is Senior Fellow-in-Residence of the Post Carbon Institute and is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost Peak Oil educators. The themes covered in his series of four videos are much more thoroughly explored in his latest book, Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels.

The 4:15-minute video is followed by my full transcript of Richard’s talk. In addition, at the bottom of the post there are embedded videos of the first two talks in the four-part series. Alternatively, you can watch Richard’s part three talk on the Post Carbon website by clicking on the following linked title.

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Our renewable future, by Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute, April 23, 2015

 

TRANSCRIPT

As we’ve seen in two previous videos, the Great Burning is coming to an end one way or another. And we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns with regard to our current economic model. Can we keep growing the economy and avoid diminishing returns by switching energy resources?

A transition to renewable solar and wind energy technologies is inevitable and necessary. However, they can’t solve all our problems. We still face limits to soil, fresh water and minerals. According to the Global Footprint Network we’re currently using one and a half earth’s worth of resources annually. We can do that only by stealing from future generations.

Further, human population is still expanding, putting additional pressure on sensitive planetary systems. Non-human species are going extinct at a thousand times the natural rate. Renewable energy will help with some of these problems. But only a reduction in human numbers and per-capita consumption will make a big enough difference.

Moreover, solar and wind aren’t like the energy sources we’re used to. The sun doesn’t always shine. The wind doesn’t always blow. We can buffer this intermittency by using energy storage technologies or by building much more generation capacity than we actually need at any one time. This way we can make solar and wind act more like fossil fuels. But we increase the expense and complexity of the energy system.

Then there’s the liquid fuels problem. Oil is our most economically crucial energy source because it fuels transportation. And trade is all about transportation. We can electrify cars. And we can provide electricity with renewable sources of energy. But big trucks, ships, and airplanes are hard to electrify. Biofuel production can’t be expanded much. And large-scale ethanol and bio-diesel entail huge environmental and energy costs. There’s just no good comprehensive renewable substitute for oil.

Previous energy transitions were additive. We just kept piling new energy sources onto old ones. And those transitions were driven by economic opportunity. Renewable energy transition will be different. It entails replacing most of our current energy sources. And it will be driven either by government policy or by crisis. Ironically, we use coal, oil, and natural gas at every stage of building and deploying solar and wind technologies. That means the next energy transition will be powered by fossil fuels even as we reduce our reliance on them.

If we look realistically at the challenge, it seems inevitable that we will have less total energy in our renewable future. And the nature of that energy will require us to change our habits and expectations. None of this is meant to discourage solar or wind. They are our two best alternative energy sources, and we need to expand them as quickly as possible. But it will help if we prepare for the transition in every part of life, every aspect of society. That means localizing our economies, electrifying all of the energy-consuming activities that we can, and finding ways to reduce our overall energy consumption.

We’re all about to discover an important truth. How we use energy is as important as how we get it.

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SEE ALSO

Two previous Richard Heinberg videos in this 4-part series –

  • The Law of Diminishing Returns, published April 7, 2015 – In this new short video, the first in a 4-part series, Richard Heinberg explores how — in our economy, the environment, and energy production — we may well be facing diminishing returns. When previous societies have hit similar limits, they often doubled-down by attempting ever more complex interventions to keep things going, before finally collapsing. Will this be our fate too? And is there an alternative?

 

  • The Great Burning, published April 16, 2015 — In this short video, the second in a 4-part series, Richard Heinberg explores why The Great Burning — the combustion of oil, coal, and natural gas — must come to an end during the next few decades. If the twentieth century was all about increasing our burn rate year after blazing year, the dominant trend of twenty-first century will be a gradual flame-out.

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