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
In their paper ‘A system of systems approach to energy sustainability assessment: are all renewables really green?’ Saeed Hadian (UCLA) and Kaveh Madani (ICL), take a comprehensive look at energy system carbon footprints, water footprints, land footprints and costs. They conclude that geothermal energy has the lowest impact, biomass elephant grass the most. As you might expect, coal and oil are also high, wind and solar thermal low, but so is nuclear, while PV solar comes out quite high – more than hydro, or gas: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1470160X14005640 – cor0005
By Dave Elliott
In his powerful and eloquent new book, The Burning Answer, which seems to be a response to Mike Berners-Lee’s book on climate change, The Burning Question, Imperial College Professor of Physics Keith Barnham contends that, despite our much higher energy demands now than in earlier periods of human evolution, our sun can provide all our primary energy needs again. Solar technology can save us from the threats of global warming, diminishing oil resources and nuclear disaster, if we take the necessary action.
by Dave Elliott
The UK government’s announcement of a preliminary deal with EDF and its financial partners on the Hinkley Point C European Pressurised-water Reactor (EPR) project, was met with a mixed response. While some welcomed it as long overdue, with a Telegraph headline saying that it ‘will avoid ‘blight’ of 30,000 wind turbines’, others saw it as a risky diversion from developing truly sustainable green energy options, and even many of those in favour worried about the costs, and the partial reliance on Chinese finance.
By Felix Creutzig
Planet Under Pressure integrates more than 3000 people of diverse research communities into a four-day conference in London these days. What this conference makes really great is that people from very different disciplines talk to each other and try to get the social and environmental issues together from various angles: demographics, climate change mitigation and adaptation, migration, infrastructures, cities, subsistence farming, and so on.
In the demographics session today, the report Migration and Global Environmental Change was presented.
One key insight is that migration, in terms of percentage of total population, remains largely unchanged. Migration is driven by multiple causes, and environmental threats can be dominant in specific cases. Crucially, the report understands migration as adaptation of individuals and households – it does not need to be interpreted as something that needs to be avoided. In fact, more worrisome than migration can be the absence of migration: the poorest part of populations in many cases lacks the (financial) capacity to move around.
Another result of the report is that migration often leads to higher exposure of environmental hazards (e.g. when urbanization increasingly results in migrants occupying land under high flooding risk).
Current economic difficulties are not the fault of single decisions or decision-makers; it’s energy, stupid!
The current conundrum discussed in the news and the public is between (1) Western government spending to keep stimulating their economies after the decade-long period of overspending and (2) savings to prevent future collapse of governments under their own debt burden. Unfortunately, energy resource availability is rarely a part of the discussion, and pundits never point to it as a core driver. This is quite unfortunate.
There is no one consensus on the “economic growth” issue among mainstream economists as the proper choice, or series of choices, is quite unclear. There appears to be no good path, only a choice between bad paths. Ecological or biophysical economic arguments have historically been quickly dismissed as invalid, yet no other economic theories are based upon anything tangible. We hear of the need to “consumer confidence” as if that is a tangible and meaningful reason to invest. Irrational exuberance, or extreme confidence, is exactly what pushed us to two boom-bust cycles (dot-com and now housing) over the last two decades. Confidence only takes you so far, and at some point you need something tangible upon which to base economic theory. That tangible good is essentially natural resources, primarily energy, and the technologies that convert those resources to consumer products and services.
Because increasing consumption of natural and energy resources are the key driver of economic growth, if you do not increase their consumption, you do not grow. Yes, more efficient energy production and conversion systems (power plants, vehicles, mining, etc.) also induce economic growth, but the past only indicates the higher efficiency begets higher total consumption – due to Jevon’s Paradox. However, when fossil resource availability does decline due to depletion, we’ll be happy for higher efficiency services even when total consumption decreases.
Adding or switching to energy resources and technologies, where they exist, takes decades. Translation: this is longer than election cycles. Thus, a US president that implements energy efficiency or conservation policies will generally not reap the rewards or drawbacks of those policies. The next President, or perhaps a second one down the line, will be dealing with those problems. Since 2000, the United States has consumed roughly the same total amount of primary energy, about 100 quadrillion Btus per year. There has never been a time in US history at which total energy consumption was stagnant for this long. Much of the reason for the stagnation in energy consumption was offshoring of energy-intensive industries to developing countries, and thus there are less and less non-skilled jobs available after each economic downturn. The US economy restructured based upon increasing energy prices during the last decade, and companies traded cheap energy in the form of the muscle of Chinese, for more expensive energy, in the form of natural gas and petroleum.
Thus, major structural changes in the US economy have occurred over the last decade, and no policy can reverse these trends in less than another decade. The reason that economists, and even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernake are calling the economic future “unusually uncertain” is that the US has never encountered the situation at which we now reside. Energy consumption is flat. World oil production is at a plateau. We have shipped jobs to China and borrow their profits to feed our consumption habit. Unemployment is high.
Policy can’t ship more jobs to China because hindering employment even further is a political death nail. Policy can promote offshore oil and renewable energy technologies, but those resources and technologies have lower energy return on energy invested (EROI) than the resources we have used in the past. Lower EROI means more of the economy must focus on energy production itself rather than producing other more discretionary economic goods. And a change in transportation mode (electric cars, electric and/or high speed trains) will take decades, and these changes can work, but they may never be as economically as productive as burning petroleum at $20/BBL to $60/BBL.
So the reason that economists see a “sluggish” or “low-growth” economy in the foreseeable future is due to energy. From 2000-2008, we pretended that high rates of GDP growth could occur without increasing energy consumption. Increasing prosperity of the developing world has strained energy resources to the point that we must adjust to a future with energy consumption that is both lower and from new resources and technologies. These technologies and resources, even without considering altering them to prevent greenhouse gas emissions, are less productive. So if you put these concepts together, you end up with the result that we must (1) invest in new energy technologies that (2) employ more people per output (kWh, liter of fuel, etc.) and produce (3) lower net energy than historical coal, natural gas, and oil (even future coal, oil, and natural gas are less productive) such that (4) the energy sector grows as a proportion of the economy and (5) by definition the rest of the economy must shrink. Either this reality we become true, or the scientists working on fusion will pull a rabbit out of hat. No tax policy of a President will do much to significantly alter this equation. Only energy consumers can wait to see if we do or do not pull off sufficient technology solutions, and adjust their habits accordingly.