By Dave Elliott
Energy and Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd was batting on a sticky wicket when she came to launch her ‘energy market reset’ plan. A leaked memo had made clear that, far from the UK being on track to meet its EU defined mandatory 15% by 2020 renewable energy target, as she had claimed, it would fall short by around 50 TWh per year by 2020, – nearly 25% under the target. Rudd didn’t spell it out in the ‘Reset’ speech, but her options are limited: more biofuels, buying in green power and credits from abroad: ‘every-thing but wind and solar’, as the Ecologist magazine put it: www.theecologist.org/News/news_aalysis/2986190/leaked_letter_rudd_admits_25_green_energy_undershoot_misled_parliament.html
By Dave Elliott
The output from the UK’s 24 GW of renewables was 64.4 TWh in 2014, 19.2% of annual UK electricity supply, overtaking that from the UK’s troubled nuclear fleet, at 63.8 TW in 2014. Wind led, at 31.6 TWh, 9.4% of UK electricity, solar supplied 3.9 TWh (1.2%), hydro 5.9 TWh (1.8%) and bioenergy 22.9 TWh (6.8%). And Scottish renewables supplied the equivalent of 49.6% of Scotland’s electricity use, led by on-shore wind. www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/416310/PN_March_15.pdf
By Dave Elliott
The policy battle in the UK over green energy technology continues, with those holding right of centre views regularly claiming that, as the sub head to Peter Liley’s pro shale gas Spectator article put it, “If we give in to the green lobby, Britain will drift into an energy crisis.”
A report from Centrica using data from the Renewable Energy Foundation says the cost to the UK of hitting EU targets on green energy was likely to be over £16bn by 2020, including subsidies for wind and nuclear power, improvements to the national grid and VAT on green projects, i.e £600/household per year. DECC disagreed. It said bills will be around £166 lower than they would otherwise be, partly because of lower energy usage. The DECC said: “The report is a manifesto for locking the British economy into excessive reliance on imported gas from far-flung, unstable parts of the world…it’s the global gas price, not green subsidies, that has primarily been pushing up energy bills.”
A few weeks ago on This Week (ABC, http://abcnews.go.com/ThisWeek/video/exclusive-sen-alexander-9969974 of the said the United States is now too complex for there to be very large sweeping bills to pass that will be good for the country. The reasoning is that the bills are now so long that there are too many unintended consequences and surprises embedded in them. He thus pushed for more incremental bills to make continuous progress. On the other hand, President Obama says the health care system is so complex that you can’t overhaul it in a piecemeal fashion. So which is it?
What does these conflicting statements from the US elected officials say about the state of governing the United States, or perhaps generally the industrialized world, regarding the reaching a point of diminished marginal returns on the complexity of how we are organized? And in the reasoning of Joseph Tainter (http://www.cnr.usu.edu/htm/facstaff/memberID=837 are energy resources, or the lack of the abundance per capita of the past, have something to do with our inability to solve new problems?
I’ll quote from an article in Slate’s website (http://www.slate.com/id/2225820/:
“Over the last several decades, the number of bills passed by Congress has declined: In 1948, Congress passed 906 bills. In 2006, it passed only 482. At the same time, the total number of pages of legislation has gone up from slightly more than 2,000 pages in 1948 to more than 7,000 pages in 2006. (The average bill length increased over the same period from 2.5 pages to 15.2 pages.)
Bills are getting longer because they’re getting harder to pass. Increased partisanship over the years has meant that the minority party is willing to do anything it can to block legislation–adding amendments, filibustering, or otherwise stalling the lawmaking process. As a result, the majority party feels the need to pack as much meat into a bill as it can–otherwise, the provisions might never get through. … And as new legislation is introduced, past laws need to be updated. The result: more pages.”
So governing the country is becoming more and more difficult to increasing size and complexity. Theoretically, this requires more and more money and energy to operate the government and distribute services among the citizens. Given that US energy consumption has been effectively flat at between 99 and 101 quadrillion (1 quad = 1 x 10^15) BTUs since 2004, perhaps this has finally caught up to us in the form of the mortgage and financial crisis causing the current recession. The economists are stating that they don’t see jobs recovering much at all this year even if the overall economy does grow by any percentage.
It is disappointing to hear, or rather not hear, more of a discussion among politicians of how energy resource quality (measured by energy return on energy invested (EROI), net energy, etc.) is not brought more into the general discussion as an indicator of the future path of our society. I hosted a panel session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting on “The Consequences of Changes on Energy Return on Energy Invested” (see: http://aaas.confex.com/aaas/2010/webprogram/Session1710.html that the fossil fuels we have used in the past and are still consuming today. Thus, energy systems must inherently get simpler not more complex. It is not clear whether the “smart grid” is more simple or more complex. In some instances, it allows decisions to be made more locally and that sounds simpler. On the other hand, there are more decision-making nodes or locations, and that sounds more complex. I’m inclined at the moment to think that the smart grid is an increase in complexity, but this is a ripe area for future research.
I send out a call to the energy community to call for a more integrated approach to thinking about how critical energy quality is to economic production and societal organization. Instead of blaming the current politician in office for running up the budget or spending too many tax dollars, we need to show that our future options for private and public services are fundamentally limited by the quantity and quality of the energy resources we consume. Thus, we should not be surprised when our politicians are having extreme difficulty in solving the current challenges. The lesser amount of excess energy floating in the economy simply demands that actions be performed much more precisely with less and less room for error. When there is excess energy available, you can simply more easily afford to mess up, and for that matter, clean up your mess.
The economic struggles since mid-2008 are bringing out factions that highlight both the uncertainty of the future together with ignorance of how the past has led us to where we are today. In the US, we have the conservative “Tea Party” movement of the right that is complaining about excessive government spending and the liberal “anti-banking” faction on the left that is fed up with the fat cats on Wall Street skimming too much off the top. Both sides are correct in coming to grips with the fact that large organizations and bureaucracies (e.g. government and banks) are having a harder time coping with the current economic and social problems of today.
What has unfortunately been quite absent from most of the political discussions about how to get the economy “back on track” is the true role of energy resources and technologies. With all of the talk in the United States about the need to “connect the dots” for the “War on Terrorism”, what we really need to do is accept the way the energy and economic dots are connected in our modern industrial society.
By taking the following factors into account and enhancing our knowledge of how we can and cannot affect these indicators, we will “connect the dots” on our future as well as possible:
- (1) Jevon’s Paradox states that increased efficiency in the use of resources (in this case energy resources) through the use of technology and structural change increases total resource consumption.
- (a) Policy point: if we target increasing efficiency, we can expect to only delay environmental problems.
- (2) The energy return on energy invested (EROI) for the combination of energy resources, renewable and fossil, together with technology that converts those resources into services dictates the level of complexity attainable by society.
- (a) Policy point: society seems to have reached a level of complexity in the last 1–3 decades such that:
- (3) The EROI of energy services has been extremely high with the use of fossil fuels, and EROI will eventually come to a value such that it is equal for fossil and renewable resources. That time of EROI equality will mark a turning point in human civilization.
- (4) The human species has now grown in size that it is capable of affecting the environment on a global scale as opposed to only very localized impacts before the industrial revolution.
The connecting of the dots goes as follows:
- (1) Humans organized into agrarian societies, and this was beneficial because it raised the EROI from farming, where the energy produced in this case was that energy embodied in food, not primary energy for operating machinery. The invention of tools and use of beasts of burden (horses, oxen, etc.) also enhanced human EROI (i.e. the amount of human energy required to grow food for human consumption).
- (2) The discovery of fossil fuels and subsequent technological change to enable further exploitation of fossil fuels led to the industrial revolution and the capabilities of production and economy in our present industrialized society.
- (3) Resource constraints via any combination of technical, physical, economic, and political factors act as a driver to increase efficiency in the use of energy resources, but there are thermodynamic limits.
- (a) For example, the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s drove up the price of oil which in turn drove the US and Europe to increase fuel efficiency of vehicles to get the same service (move passenger and cargo from point A to point B) with less fuel, or energy. Subsequently, energy efficiency increased since the 1970s but the rate of consumption of energy changed from exponential growth to linear growth, and economic growth also slowed compared to the previous post World War II rates for the US.
- (4) Today the rate of technological change in terms of increased energy efficiency and high EROI has not increased at the same rate as needed to enable economic growth equal to the pre-2000 years and subsequently the top of the economic food chain has decided to hoard recent profits at the expense of distributing those profits to the middle and lower classes. This is evidenced by the increased income gap between the top and the bottom.
- (5) The inherently lower EROI of renewable resources will not enable the same level of economic production and societal complexity as provided by higher EROI fossil fuels. This is because renewable technologies are based upon current flows of energy (e.g. sunlight, wind, waves), as compared to fossil fuels which are based upon stocks of energy stored over hundreds of millions of years.
To contemplate the final point above, consider that Earth stored the renewable energy of the Sun (in the form of biomass) on the order of 100 million years, and now we are consuming this energy on the order of hundreds of years. What humans learn and choose to practice during this century will dictate the type of societies that are even possible after peak fossil-fuel production.