Monday, February 18, 2013

The Tortured Road to Energy Transition. Who Said It Was Going to Be Easy?

Decarbonizing our economies and our societies, breaking our dependency on fossil fuels, is going to be vastly harder than you may have imagined.

The Tyee's Andrew Nikiforuk offers a sobering assessment of the hurdles and hardship that stand in our path.

The basic global energy picture is what Nobel laureate Richard Smalley once called the "terawatt challenge." And it comes with no comfortable answers.

What's a terawatt? Well, it's equal to the energy released from five billion barrels of oil yearly, one billion tons of coal, or 1.6 billion tons of wood.

Every day the world consumes about 17 terawatts of energy in the form of coal, gas, oil and nuclear power. Eighty-five per cent of that work comes from fossil fuels. In fact, oil provides 37 per cent of the energy mix and accounts for 90 per cent of all transportation fuels. It's the lynchpin of the global energy system. 

Renewable or green forms of energy such as hydro and wood contribute slightly more than one terawatt. Wind, solar and biofuels barely appear on the chart. (One terawatt, by the way, is the amount of energy the world consumed in 1890.)  

How does a society maintain an expensive 17 terawatt diet when the cost of its primary energy supply hits triple digits and the so-called replacements are neither as versatile or portable as oil?
But here's another twist. If the rest of the world were to adopt the lifestyles of the average North American who now consumes 24 barrels of oil (and lots more electricity) civilization would require a fivefold increase in energy consumption. That's 77 terawatts.

To entertain a global population of 9.5 billion in 2050 on North Americans standards multiplies the challenge again.

 Such a policy would take another 268 terawatts or 16 times the current level of energy spending. (Just to energize nine billion people living at current Chinese standards would take at least 34 terawatts or a near tripling of current rates.)

To avoid catastrophic global warming and runaway ocean acidification, scientists calculate that society requires a massive energy conversion to renewables beginning yesterday.

Such a program means converting the current energy budget of 17 terawatts from mostly fossil fuels to 14 terawatts from renewables within 25 years. Such a revolution would reduce the fossil fuel share of the energy mix to about three terawatts a day.

But is such a feat even possible given renewables low profile energy in a debt-ridden world?

In the end, there are several different ways of answering the terawatt challenge. The politically correct and dominant approach is denial. But one way or another the globe must increase either renewable energy supplies, decrease fossil fuel use or lower population levels. Or achieve all three simultaneously.

But whatever nations choose or deny, ordinary citizens face years of political and economic volatility in the years ahead.


Purple library guy said...

I've gradually come to the conclusion that energy transition will only happen one of two ways:

1. The ongoing crisis of neoliberal political economy worsens, horrible things happen, and a massive backlash results in a left shift sufficiently huge to create an opening for non-market approaches to big issues, or

2. The gradual lowering in price for a watt of solar or wind power bring them to where, despite all the fossil fuel subsidies, some renewables are clearly cheaper. This tipping point reached, their use spreads like crazy.

I'm not saying either of these is inevitable, although (2) seems to be creeping up on us.

The Mound of Sound said...

Yeah, I've seen a couple of items recently suggesting solar has become or soon will be cheaper than coal energy. What do the fossil fuelers do when that happens? What of the trillions of dollars of potentially stranded assets they carry on their books?

I have been watching to see whether Big Oil especially would start diversifying into alternate energy is any big way but that hasn't happened. From that I take it they'll dig in and fight this using their powerful legislative connections and influence.