Promises of 100% renewables by 2050 misrepresent the reality of current fossil fuel energy facts, says Hagens.
No 2502 Posted by fw, August 7, 2019
To access links to other posts by Nate Hagens about The Human Predicament, click on the Tab titled Teachings of Dr. Nate Hagens about The Human Predicament – Links to Posts
“Over the past 500 years we’ve completely altered our energy system. We’ve added more and more resources which give increasing benefits to societies. We went from firewood to wind, to watermills. And then, with the industrial revolution, rapidly added more technologies. Two fundamental characteristics underpin this era. Our entire energy system increased in complexity, particularly with the introduction of electricity. The things we could do via this energy carrier, created with lots of fancy components, became more and more fun and attractive and a new baseline for our consumption. Additionally, we had major increases in energy quality during the past few centuries. Firewood and windmills were low quality resources, while fossil fuels presented very favorable qualities of high density, low footprints, storability and portability. So the future is likely going to be a combination of these two trends. As fossil fuels deplete, we’re going to have no choice but to go back down to lower quality resources, as measured by less portability, lower density per unit, more land area needed, etc. … We can have a happy, meaningful, and productive society using a high percentage of renewables in tandem with probably less overall energy. But this is not generally what’s being promised and promoted.” —Dr. Nate Hagens
Yesterday’s post presented a title list of 34 videos on the complex nature of our human predicament, uploaded to You Tube by Dr. Nate Hagens. I noted that these videos, which professor Hagens uses in his teaching and public lectures, are grouped in three sections — Brain and Behavior; Energy and Economy; and The Big Picture. Moreover, they are freely available on You Tube, for all to watch, offering a total of 6 hours of viewing time.
Following up on yesterday’s piece, posted below is an embedded video of Dr. Hagens’ Energy Transitions, Part 14 of Section 2, Energy and Economy in Hagens’ set of 34 videos. Included with the video is my full transcript of Hagens’ narration, along with my added subheadings, text highlighting, added links to other sources, and a few definitions of unfamiliar terms. The above passage is taken from my transcript.
Alternatively, this video, without the transcript, can be viewed by clicking on the following linked title.
Sustainable low-carbon energy could be an integral part of the path to a stable biosphere
We’ve talked about how energy has different properties. And those properties provide different benefits both to organisms in nature and the human economies. I’m a big proponent of sustainable low-carbon energy. I have solar panels on my roof. I’m trying to get Minnesota to scale [up] the amount of renewables that we have, because this can be the glue between the short game and the long game that allows for a stable biosphere and proliferation of species and perhaps a wiser, more ecologically aware human culture.
The current media narratives are polarized, disconnected from reality
But, the current narratives in our media are disconnected from reality on both the optimistic and the pessimistic sides. The image on the left [of the screen] shows Easter Island, a common example of a collapsed society in human history. The image on the right represents a clean, high-tech Star-Trek-like future. These seem to be the most common stories in the media about what the energy transition we’ll face this century.
Energy-blind media focus on two outcomes – easy seamless transition to renewables or inevitable collapse
Because of a general energy blindness in our culture, the narratives in the media have become polarized. Either we can make an easy seamless transition to clean, low-carbon renewables, while maintaining metabolic 30-ton primate, individual lifestyles — or, that renewables are energy sinks and a waste of time and precious resources, and there’s nothing we can do to avert an Easter Island repeat. The truth is in the middle.
Institutional narrative is simplistic — MORE of everything, never LESS
There exists a general energy blindness in our culture. Some of it is due to lack of energy education. But I suspect a good deal is due to a combination of people’s careers depending on a certain narrative, and our institutions being designed to react only to a narrative of more and growth, instead of less.
An informed reality on energy transitions is more complex
An informed reality on energy transitions, as you might guess by now, is a bit more complex.
Let’s take a look at two key points.
Fossil carbon energy has made possible our current unique and energy-intensive lifestyles
Recall that fossil carbon and hydrocarbons* are not different from solar energy – they are solar energy stored from hundreds of millions of years of sunshine by plants and animals which lived long ago. But as previously discussed their special attributes of density, storability, transportability, and high surplus have supported our current unique and energy-intensive lifestyles. [*A hydrocarbon is an organic compound consisting entirely of hydrogen and carbon. Most hydrocarbons found on Earth naturally occur in crude oil, where decomposed organic matter provides an abundance of carbon and hydrogen.]
Over 150 years we have transitioned from 100% renewable energy to 5 to 10% renewables – Now it’s time to increase renewables in our energy mix
We’ve just gone through a 150-year period of going from 100% renewables down to 5 to 10% renewables. And now we have to gradually, but inevitably, make that transition back. This energy transition will present many constraints and opportunities – enough to fill many hours of video.
Let’s look at four core issues relevant to the upcoming energy transition.
Renewable technologies include: solar panels; wind power; wave power; geothermal; fission power; and hydroelectric
Point number 1 – We can now make devices that channel and concentrate usable flows of energy from the sun. We refer to this, collectively, as renewable energy. This technology is now mature, has gotten affordable, and can generate a great deal of low-carbon energy. Renewable technologies include: solar panels; wind power; wave power; geothermal; fission power; fusion power – not yet workable; – and hydroelectric.
Renewables need to be repeatedly rebuilt using materials, energy, and infrastructure
Except for some ancient water- and wind-powered grain mills and small dams, none of these technologies have ever been built in any other way than with burning coal, oil, and gas. So let’s be clear – solar panels and wind turbines tap continual flows from the wind and sun using mechanisms which need to be repeatedly rebuilt using materials, energy, and infrastructure. The mechanisms themselves are no more renewable than a pickup truck. Renewable energy technology is, at this point, just one more thing we do with fossil energy, along with racetracks, Disneyland, high-definition TV, disposable forks, etc.
“Renewable” energy technologies are misnamed — “rebuildable” is a more fitting name for them
Renewable energy is, therefore, misnamed. It’s a phrase, a meme, a story because it implies that its energy may be renewed and used again. This is not the case. An oak tree is renewable. A chicken is renewable. They can reproduce themselves based on solar and hydrological flows, and finding another chicken. A Prius or a wind tower aren’t renewable – they’re rebuildable.
Unlike 24/7 fossil energy supply, renewables may not always be available when needed
Point number 2 – There’s a mismatch between the timing of stochastic [random] renewable flows and the current 24/7 access to energy services that our societies require. The above graph is electricity consumption for Germany for September, 2017. The maroon spikes of the demand for electricity from the totality of German consumers. The yellow spikes are the total electricity generated via solar panels. The blue spikes are the electricity generated from wind. On many days, solar and wind were only a fraction of the energy demanded, so there needed either to be batteries or fossil or nuclear back-up generation to make up the difference. On some days, not shown here, there was so much sum and wind that it overwhelmed the amount of demand and had to be curtailed or thrown away or it would risk damaging the fragile electric grid.
There’s an inherent mismatch between the demanding of 24/7 access to energy and the timing and scale of what the sun can provide. Our current culture expects “baseload power”* – higher in the daytime, lower in the nighttime, but always available to meet our wants and needs. [*The amount of power made available by an energy producer, such as a power plant, to meet fundamental demands by consumers. Wind and solar cannot reliably provide baseload power].
Depending on energy wants and needs some sort of battery backup is likely necessary for solar and wind
That means either that photovoltaics* and wind can only be a fairly small percent of the total power generation – or, that extra mechanisms must be built to even out the flow. That batteries of some sort must store the energy for night use, or that the amount of photovoltaics must be greatly overbuilt so that it provides enough, even when the clouds roll in. [*Refers to the conversion of light into electricity by using semiconducting materials that employ solar cells capable of generating electrical power].
To support a baseload energy system, more solar and wind will be required, increasing complexity and costs
The higher percent of solar and wind in the system, the more complex and expensive it will become if – and this is an important if – baseload is what we want to maintain.
Whoops – Will this region be able to go 100% renewables on their accelerated timeframe?
A small side note here: I’m working with some regions that are trying to go a hundred percent renewables on an accelerated timeframe. And we look and there are periods of sometimes 10 or 15 or 20 days with no sun or wind. I asked them: “Well, what is your plan in that scenario?” And they said: “We will buy from the grid.” And I said: “Well what happens if everyone wants to go a hundred percent renewables and they all want to buy from the grid which has coal and natural gas, and then there won’t be enough available?” And they’re like: “Well, we’re looking into that.”
No easy answers
So these are important issues that are being worked on but there’s no easy answers.
Be suspect of media reports claiming that a new solar installation was cheaper than oil and gas
Furthermore, we frequently see in the media that a new solar installation somewhere was cheaper than coal or gas. This is highly misleading for many reasons, but mainly because a solar kilowatt hour comes when it comes. A grid-based kilowatt hour is available when you flick a switch in your house or your factory. As an analogy, it’s like restaurant advertising cheap hamburgers for seven bucks but only on three days a week between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM. And it’s closed on all the others, and when it’s raining. Versus a place that’s open 24/7 where the burger costs $9.00.
So comparing the cost of adding solar photovoltaic to a city or a county to the overall cost of electricity to that area, it’s kind of like comparing apples and oranges.
Promises of 100% renewables by 2050 misrepresent the reality of current fossil fuel energy facts
Point number 3 – Fossil fuel range extenders. We’re currently inundated with stories about the feasibility of 50%, 80% or even 100% renewables powering society in 2050, while in reality, each year of the past decade we’ve consumed more additional energy via fossil fuels than from renewables, globally. If you look at the above graph, on a percentage basis, renewables are growing very rapidly, on the right [of the graph], but on an absolute total basis, they’re still a small fraction of the total fossil generation over the last 10 years — 75% pf additional new capacity is fossil-based.
The manufacture of solar panels increases GDP, but fossil fuels are used in the manufacturing process
So there’s a societal mechanism to make solar panels since that increases GDP. But there’s no such mechanism to stop using coal. What does happen, though, is with the scaling of renewables – when the sun shines and the wind blows, some coal and gas invariably is saved from being burned. Yet there has been no detectable down-ratchet in fossil energy use as renewables have been added.
Ironically, the assumption that renewables will reduce CO2 emissions, when it’s just adding to energy-burning GDP
In the absence of a new cultural metric that displaces GDP, modern renewables will thus largely function as fossil-fuel, range extenders. This is ironic because efforts to decouple via green energy is just adding to energy-burning GDP.
Our existing infrastructure, based on fossil carbon energy, is now an impediment to transition to renewables
Point number 4 – Transportation. Our cultural energy blindness meant we naively assumed that cheap oil and gas would last forever, or have easy substitutes. So we built our infrastructure around convenience, meaning millions of end nodes, using individual cars and trucks driving several very short trips with relatively little cargo.
This system has also allowed for the nearly instantaneous transportation of goods, so perishable stuff from around the world can arrive at locations around the world via Fed Ex and Amazon.
A few summary points here.
Truck transportation has no easy, cheap renewable energy solution; rail and ships would be more efficient
Nearly 100% of final-destination transport in the US is by trucks, which have no easy, cheap, renewable energy solution. If the goal of the system were to reduce energy or not rely on oil, rail would be the preferred transport method, as it’s 10 times more efficient – steel on steel – than rubber on concrete. And ships, via waterways, would even be more efficient.
Heavy methanol fuels are unmarketable at $10 or $12 a gallon today
And – I should point out – we already have the technology to make “low carbon” fossil fuel replacements if we turn our excess electricity from large solar and wind installations into heavy fuels via electrolysis of methanol and other ways. But doing so would cost $10 or $12 a gallon today. So the market won’t choose go that route. But this is yet another example of we have enough, but not enough to continue current societal expectations. In short, all this transportation infrastructure is going to be difficult to change and poses perhaps the key challenge to the energy and economic transition.
Nuclear energy could power a civilization – just not our current capitalist civilization
A quick note on nuclear. Leaving aside the risk from its waste streams for the moment, nuclear does have a reasonably large surplus [of energy], and after the initial concrete expenditure, turns out a lot of low-carbon electricity, for many decades. Is it a high enough energy surplus to power a civilization? Probably so. High enough to power our current civilization by itself? Highly unlikely.
To make a dent in humanity’s CO2 emissions, we would have to embark on a massive project of building thousands of fission plants immediately, at the same time closing coal plants. There’s not even a hint of that happening. And it takes a long time to build such plants. But, it’s possible.
Okay. So those were a few of the points. Let’s widen out and look at the context.
Our energy system has been completely altered over the past 500 years to give us more benefits
Over the past 500 years we’ve completely altered our energy system. We’ve added more and more resources which give increasing benefits to societies. We went from firewood to wind, to watermills. And then, with the industrial revolution, rapidly added more technologies.
Increased benefits have come at the cost of increased complexity
Two fundamental characteristics underpin this era. Our entire energy system increased in complexity, particularly with the introduction of electricity. The things we could do via this energy carrier, created with lots of fancy components, became more and more fun and attractive and a new baseline for our consumption.
As well, fossil fuels have provide major increases in energy quality
Additionally, we had major increases in energy quality during the past few centuries. Firewood and windmills were low quality resources, while fossil fuels presented very favorable qualities of high density, low footprints, storability and portability.
As fossil fuels deplete we’re going to have to go back to lower quality, higher complexity energy resources
So the future is likely going to be a combination of these two trends. As fossil fuels deplete, we’re going to have no choice but to go back down to lower quality resources, as measured by less portability, lower density per unit, more land area needed, etc.
Additionally, under the default trajectory, we’re going to continue the trend of higher energy complexity, which includes more moving parts and components, which carries additional risks.
To perpetuate economic growth, we are desperately trying to extend the life of non-renewable fossils
So let me go back to this graph and kind of illustrate conceptually what we’re talking about. Our society’s in a growth constraint. We’re doing everything we can to kick the can of growth forward. Using financial alchemy*, we’re now using the black line — money creation, monetary rules – to temporarily extend the red line of non-renewable fossil stocks of energy materials. But this can’t last for much longer.
Moreover, renewable energy forecasts foolishly predict increases in the size and scale of our economy
However — and not surprisingly – most renewable energy forecasts continue with the same flawed assumption of a money-in, energy-out system, as opposed to an energy-and-materials-in, energy-and-materials-out system. Continue forecasting increases in the size and scale of our economy, even higher than the peak of non-renewable material stocks – particularly energy – to support them. [*A seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination].
If we were wise, we would use our remaining fossil energy to finance the gradual transition to renewables
To be honest, the story I’m telling here is not a popular story – particularly among leaders and billionaires and the media – even at universities. But, in my opinion we would be wise to consider our ingenuity and technology and remaining fossil energy as seed corn to pay the way forward. A lower total throughput, which combines our non-renewables with stochastic technology harvesting daily flows of the sun. Lots of people are working on sustainability but largely without this energy context.
What level the combination of technology in non-renewable resources would be achievable given the constraints outlined in this video series is an urgent question. Almost by definition, it can’t be maintained at the top of wherever the peak in non-renewable resources eventually will be.
What fraction of that consumption could be roughly maintained with technology in different social and cultural living arrangements? Perhaps a question you [students] will help to research and work towards.
The enormous challenge ahead – How to shift from reliable fossil energy back to what it was — erratic renewables
Solar PV and other energy tech could play a large part in powering a very nice human civilization. But not this civilization. Not the way we structured it now. In coming decades, we face an enormous task, shifting our human energy system back from the one-time bounty of fossil energy to what it always was before – the cumbersome harvesting of low-density and erratic solar flows to meet our needs.
We could have prosperity without growth by using a less overall renewable energy, but that’s not what’s being promised and promoted
We can have a happy, meaningful, and productive society using a high percentage of renewables in tandem with probably less overall energy. But this is not generally what’s being promised and promoted. We’ll all have to understand and adapt to these circumstances. We’re going to have to work more when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. We’re going to have to gradually or not so gradually give up 24/7 access to as much exosomatic* energy as we want to use. [*From outside of the body].
The good news is this is both physically possible, and psychologically, perhaps not as much of a hardship as we might believe.
[In the follow-up video, Hagens looks at the relationship between energy and happiness].
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