Climate change, peak resources and the energy transition

Probably one of the most pressing problems the world faces is the “Energy Question”. Energy is essential to modern society, without it we would find maintaining this project we call civilisation difficult, if not impossible. But where does our energy come from? How much energy do we actually use? For some time I’ve been considering this issue and this article should outline my views as to where we stand and the best way forward.

The global picture, shows that 80% of our energy usage comes from fossil fuels, around a third of it from oil. But reliance on fossil fuel based energy is simply no longer practical nor desirable. There are issues such as air pollution (which kills tens of thousands per year in the UK alone), the environmental problems associated with fossil fuel extraction, not to mention its corrosive effects on society and politics (the so called “oil curse”). But probably two of the principle problems we will face over the next half a century are Peak oil and the need to avert dangerous climate change.

Figure 1, World Energy breakdown by source [Credit: IEA]

I’ve put together a primer on peak oil. Now there are those who will tell you that peak oil is going to end civilisation as we know it. And those at the other extreme, those who believe it’s never going to happen. I do not subscribe to either philosophy, as I make clear when I discussed the limits to Growth a while back.

Peak oil does not mean we are “running out of oil”. It more a case of us running out of the cheap easily extractable oil. A good analogy is to think of a fruit tree. Over the last century or so, we’ve plucked almost all of the bigger juicer fruits from the base of the tree. While at least half the fruit is still left, it consists of smaller fruit up towards the top of the tree (so we have to get a ladder to go fetch it down) some of which has gone rotten in the sun (i.e. a reduced energy gain for energy invested, or EROI), so we have to work much harder to maintain output at the level we are used too. Indeed beyond a certain tipping point it will become physically impossible to maintain our current level of productivity, no matter how much time and effort we invest into the enterprise.

The reality is peak oil is probably going to be one of the greatest challenges our society has ever faced, more challenging that World War II or the cold war. Peak oil, or more to the point the post-peak oil era will represent a long emergency, as oil supplies gradually dwindle, leading to all sorts of economic woes, social upheaval and political unrest. It could well be the defining historical moment of our lifetime.

Figure 2, IEA World future oil production scenarios [Credit: IEA 2010 & crudeoilpeak.com]

The Hirsch Report suggests that it would take 20 years to adapt to peak oil, if we act beforehand. However, the IEA has all but admitted that conventional peak oil may have already happened back in 2006! Unconventional reserves and a sluggish economy appear to be holding off depletion for the moment, but that can’t last long. It certainly won’t last 20 years (what the Hirsch report says we need). Further, as I point out here, peak oil is always going to be one of those “in the wing mirror” moments. Its only well after we’re well past the peak that we’ll know we’ve peaked. Hence waiting till the peak happens could well amount to waiting until its too late to do anything.

As I highlight here, peak oil will represent a “liquid fuel crisis” as opposed to a traditional energy crisis. Replace oil with “something else” quickly enough to mitigate any harmful effects will be very challenging. Not least of those challenges being a lack of “something else” as an obvious substitute! Oil is a unique and wonderful substance, yielding not just an excellent transport fuel (petroleum) but a host of other industrial products also. Unfortunately, the bulk of what we use oil for is the very things that are difficult to do without it.

Figure 3, What’s in a Barrel of crude oil? A break down by unit volume [Credit: Energyquest Canada]

Globally around one third of energy use is devoted to transportation, and nearly all of that is powered by oil. Consequently, it is here that the effects of oil depletion will be felt first (a few videos on that here), as the cost of transportation sky rockets this will create a knock on effect on global trade (no more cheap chinese imports!), the economy and creating turmoil for those who depend on said transport network (such as car bound commuters in sprawling suburbs). Indeed there are some who already say that the sluggish economic growth seen over the last few years might be due to the 2006 peak mentioned earlier (video on that here).

Figure 4, Various Estimates of impending peak oil from a variety of sources (2006) [credit: Fred Matter] Note that the IEA have somewhat rowed back from their prediction above since publication of this graph

Even the most optimistic projections, from the USGS put peak oil around 2035, which is barely enough time to get ready. Consequently I’m not going to get too worked up about picking dates, the fact is, peak oil is going to happen sooner or later and the quicker we act the smoother the transition will be. And indeed, it is this “transition” that has me worried.

Oil our civilisations energy slave

One barrel of oil represents about 4,400 MJ’s of energy (45 MJ/kg x density of 0.85 x 115 litres). Assuming a human can put out 500 Watts by working hard, that implies that a barrel of oil buys you about 2,444 hrs of human labour (roughly a years worth of work at 47 hrs a week). Now at a bargain price of just $120 a barrel, that represents an cost of just 5p for an hour of human labour (even the poorest person on earth won’t work for that little!). So how are we going to run our civilisation without this unique form of energy?

Now granted, at this point the nuclear energy supporter will pop up and point out how much energy is contained within a small piece of uranium. My response to that is, ya, but it’s a tad impractical to run ones car or a plane by hammering slugs of uranium into the fuel tank every couple of miles! The renewable energy advocate will want to point out that hydrogen has over 2.5 times the energy density (by weight) of oil and burns down to produce nothing but water, not CO2. And my response to that would be, yes isn’t that wonderful, but still not as practical an alternative as an easily stored fuel that’s liquid at room temperature. Further hydrogen is merely an energy carrier, without a large source of energy to produce hydrogen, where does it come from?

Peak everything

And if peak oil seems frightening enough, in Part 2 I discuss some of the potential solutions (or lack there-of!), notably just using natural gas, coal and unconventional supplies of oil & gas. Some will have you believe that these rule out any danger of disruptions caused by peak oil by ensuring a smooth transition and a soft landing. Unfortunately there are three major problems.

Figure 5, Peak oil Cartoon [Credit: Near Zero]

Firstly, none of these sources could ever be harvested at a rate that would equal or cancel out the oil depletion rate. Not once you work out the implications of a modest rate of oil decline implies in global terms. And certainly not in a world with an expanding economy and population.

Did someone say Shale gas?. Gas demand worldwide is rising, so the last thing you want to do is bring online a whole new set of natural gas users. Even ignoring the environmental issues, US production capacity of shale gas (for example) is barely enough to match 4% of US energy demand, as I point out here. Worse still, these numbers do not account for the effect of cycle efficiencies. A gas boiler (80-90%) or power station (40-50%) uses gas more efficiently than a automobile (25-35%), consequently you need much more gas to do the same job. Factor in conversion efficiencies too (transforming say natural gas to a liquid fuel such as LNG requires an energy input and thus losses) and you realise that Shale gas will not be able to provide but a fraction of the required fuel.

Old King Coal? Again, cycle efficiencies and conversion efficiencies (such as the Fischer Tropsch process) have to be considered, as these greatly increase the quantity of coal required to replace oil (and eventually gas demand). May nations will peak in production by the 2040′s to 2050′s if current trends continue, so not really a long term option.

Figure 6, The post Tar Sands extraction mess, an area the size of France may one day look like this!

Tar sands? Again, even neglecting the enormous pollution caused by their extraction, they can at best produce a small fraction of present global oil demand. Further they represent expensive oil, both in energy terms and financial cost. As I previously pointed out in my LtG article, it is foolish to assume that post-peak oil, oil prices will always remain high. Platnium, for example, one of the rarest substances on the planet, fluctuates in price substantially depending on what the economy is doing.

Secondly, fossil fuels are, as noted, dirty and polluting forms of energy. In a world with an expanding population the last thing we need to start doing is start increasing industrial pollution as that puts at risk the biosphere (and we sort of need that to breathe and grow food with!).

Thirdly, there is climate change to worry about. Shale gas, Tar sands oil and coal all have a heavy carbon footprint. Consequently a policy of relying on them is simply incompatible with climate change mitigation.

Indeed what about climate change?

Of course, there are many environmentalists who worry that climate change is an issue that will make peak oil seem like a bad touch of the flu, and they may have a point. But peak oil is, I would argue, the more immediate problem in our radar. Further, the ultimate solution to peak oil and climate change (ditch our fossil fuel addiction) are largely similar, given that as I’ve shown the fossil fuel based “solutions” just don’t add up.

Figure 7, Petrol station in Hull flooded by freak weather, Oh the Irony!

So while, I will be hammering on about peak oil a lot, bear in mind, that I’m not loosing sense of the idea that climate change is a serious and pressing problem. I’m just not going to waste column inches elaborating on it, as I believe anyone who doesn’t read the Daily Mail (or watches Fox News) is sufficiently familiar with the matter for it not to be necessary for me to say much more about the issue.

Indeed perhaps the most worrying aspect about climate change is that we may be facing a rapidly closing window of opportunity to do anything about it. One of the things that gets climatologists waking up in the night in a cold sweat, is what’s call “feedback”. As global warming deniers are always keen to point out, the vast bulk of the world’s greenhouse gases are generated by non-human activity. However, most of these are released in a way the roughly balances with the rate they are absorbed by the biosphere. The danger is that a limited or relatively small amount of climate change provoked by our emissions could alter the climate sufficiently to destabilise the vast carbon sinks held by nature, notably the enormous quantities of carbon locked up in the world’s forests or the methane hydrates trapped under the permafrost. Consequently, beyond a certain tipping point we might be unable to do anything to mitigate nor prevent dangerous climate change, hence the imperative to act now. Again, as with peak oil, a wait and see policy amounts to waiting and seeing until it’s too late to do anything.

Obviously therefore, the sooner we start taking action the better. James Hansen has recently pointed out that had we taken action back around 2000, a 3% per year cut would have been sufficient. Now it would have to be an economy busting 6% per year cut to avert dangerous climate change.

Carbon Free Solutions

As I already mentioned, most fossil fuel resources are wholly inadequate substitutes for oil, contribute to climate change and will ultimately enter terminal depletion themselves. While we can certainly use them to get by, particularly if Carbon Capture and Storage technology can be realised swiftly. But they will represent but a temporary crutch, and a rapidly diminishing one at that.

Nuclear? While it can certainly help, its important to recognise its limitations. Nuclear energy, when done safely, is expensive energy. Often nuclear energy supporters will scoff that renewables cannot be rolled out quickly enough to cope. Actually, they have things backwards, its nuclear that will struggle to be rolled out at anything like a reasonable rate!

As I discuss here, we could never hope to build reactors quickly enough. A post peak oil depletion rate could represent 1,500-1,000 Billion kWh/yr lost per year. The fastest ever build rate of nuclear plants (30 GW’s/yr equalling 230 Billion Kwh/yr) would be woefully inadequate.

Indeed, if nuclear power output manages to stand still over the next few decades that would be little short of a triumph, given that the global nuclear fleet is ageing and its questionable whether the next generation of reactors can be built quickly enough to cope with the rate at which older plants are taken off-line. IEA projections suggest that nuclear output will either be flat or decline slightly over the next few decades.

Nuclear energy supporters will generally at this point discuss using Thorium and alternative reactor designs. However, I discussed these a while ago in a series of articles and my conclusion was that such designs are in many cases simply too immature to make any difference to the current or near future energy picture. Even those that are more mature, notably the HTGR gas cooled reactor, offer only a modest gain, not a “game changing” effect. Also, even if we ignore such practicalities, there is simply not enough Uranium (or Thorium) in the world to meet our needs, as I discuss here.

Fusion? Its unlikely to arrive until well after the transition phase of our current crisis is over. Furthermore, figures from MacKay are not encouraging. As I note here, his numbers suggest that we could only get 8-20% of present energy demand globally from the Deuterium-Tritium process. So all in all, while nuclear power can certainly help a bit, on its own it cannot provide a viable solution, and we have to be prepared to pay the costs of running and decommissioning nuclear plants safely.

Renewables?

Figure 10 – Wind turbine Assembly line for Acciona Engineering [Credit Acciona and treehugger.com]

Probably one of the few sources of energy we have that could provide enough low carbon energy and might possibly be built quickly enough to cope with either peak oil or dangerous climate change are the various forms of renewable energy. In theory we could generate many thousands of times more energy from renewable than we currently use. However, it’s the practical difficulty of building and installing all of that hardware quickly enough that has me worried!

As I point out in Part 3, production of renwables is now at the stage of 97 GW’s added to the global grid per year and rising. Even accounting for average intermitency levels this works out at roughly 566 Billion kWh/yr of newly installed generating capacity, or 260 Billion kWh/yr if we neglect big hydro and biomass (large hydro electric projects are nearly all used up, biomass may constitute a certain degree of double counting of oil). This is much higher than we could ever expand nuclear power capacity at. Investment in renewables by private industry is now strong, with costs falling while the costs of its principle competitors (fossil fuels) are rising. Renewable energy output in the US overtook nuclear energy output in 2011 (sort of anyway! see article on that here).

Figure 12– Growth of Renewable energy production worldwide [Credit: Wikipedia based on REN21 data]

However the output levels I discuss are still wholly insufficient to cope with the consequences of peak oil. We would need to increase renewables output 2.5 to 6 fold just to cope with peak oil (depending on exact depletion rate and that does not factor in cycle efficiency’s or conversion losses!) and once peak gas starts, we might need to increase such production rates by 12 fold or more (its really sort of speculation above that as to whether such a production rate is physically possible). To put it mildly such an enormous engineering undertaking would be the largest project ever undertaken by our species. While not impossible, it would be a very tall order to say the least. I discuss some of the logistics of these proposals here.

Intermitency, Supply & Demand

Indeed, the real bottle neck I fear may not be with the roll out of renewable energy devices, but with the support infrastructure needed to square the circle with them. Firstly, as we all know the wind doesn’t always blow, nor does the sun shine at times when it is convenient for us. Consequently there will be a need to store energy to account for these variations. Then there are daily and seasonal variations in energy consumption to worry about, as electricity demand tends to peak around 4-6pm, with several spikes here and there throughout the day. Energy demand in winter also tends to be up to 50% higher due to lighting and heating energy demand.

Figure 13, Typical Daily UK swings in electricity demand [Credit: The Electropedia]

And I would note to any nuclear energy supporters (or shale gas promoters) who are forever bringing this matter of intermittency up, that while you have a bit more wriggle room with nuclear, that only applies up until you start to exceed base load and intermediate electricity usage (about 50-70% of a nations electricity consumption). The UK’s electricity consumption is but 20% of its total energy use, so yes nuclear has a slight advantage (at great cost) for 16% of the UK’s energy, compared to some renewables (Hydro, CSP Biomass, Geothermal and, up to a point, Tidal energy are not subject to intermittency problems), but to fill in the remaining 82% of energy Nuclear runs into the same problem renewables will – the need to store energy to account for seasonal and daily swings in demand as well as to convert energy into other forms (heat, transport fuel, etc.) and pay the various energy penalties such conversion processes impose.

Figure 14, Svartsengi geothermal power plant, Iceland, 150 MWth

For example, the pro-nuclear author Dr MacKay proposes (after preposterously trying to argue that nuclear energy is cheaper than clean coal, btw his figures are off by at least factor of 3 to 5 ) a 110 GW array of nukes to meet 60% of the UK’s energy needs. Actually, if he’d done his sums properly, he’d realise that he needs a lot more than that! To account just for the aforementioned daily and seasonal fluctuations you would need to at least double, or potentially quadruple this figure, depending on the demand profile of a future UK electricity grid (220 – 440 GW’s installed capacity just to meet the UK’s needs! Currently we have 375 GW’s installed worldwide!). Further, many of these reactors would spend most of their service lives idle, only being turned on for a few hours each day or a few months each year. Now least I be accused of overt nuclear bashing, the same scenario would play out if we tried to square the circle with renewables alone in the absence of any energy storage options (we’d need vast arrays of wind farms and solar plants, backed up by a huge number of biomass burning power stations and dams), again we’d need to take his figures (he quotes 33GW’s of wind energy and a similar quantity of solar) and multiply them up substantially.

So some means of energy storage is like I said, essential, no matter what scenario we envisage. And its the difficulty and time involved in building this support infrastructure that I see as the problem. We will likely need a new HVDC network to connect up the various renewable resources. Although, I would note that is the error MacKay made (relying too heavily on electricity). But storage on that grid is still essential. Hydro-electric dams will have to be converted where possible to function as pumped storage systems and new pumped storage units will need to be built. A good portion of any new wind or offshore energy capacity will need to be devoted purely to the task of making electricity for hydrogen production. Where are we going to store all that hydrogen? How is it transported to customers? As I discuss here, while we could refurbish and convert existing natural gas infrastructure, this is not the sort of job that would be pulled off overnight. And who is going to pay for all of this? Our current system of subsidy (be it of nuclear, fossil fuels or renewables) offers no mechanism to fund such energy storage projects.

The Perfect Match

Perhaps the solution is to match our sources of energy to the demand. For example, the bulk of domestic energy demand in the UK is heating (up to 60% for space heating and 25% for hot water). The best renewable sources to match this demand include solar thermal systems, biomass (boilers), ground source heat pumps, or CHP. While the latter two need an energy source to run it (CHP needs a fuel source, which would probably for the time being be natural gas, but later biomass or hydrogen, Heat pumps need electricity and of course some of that is generated by fossil fuels at the moment) in the right circumstances that can produce substantial energy savings.

Figure 15, A breakdown of the typical UK house hold energy use [Credit: BBC News, based on DTI data (2004)]

Unfortunately, in many countries there is no real financial incentive to install heat producing renewables, even thought there is generous subsidies for domestic solar PV or wind energy. While this is changing, the recently introduced RHI (Renewable Heat Initiative) in the UK for example, clearly we need to start matching demand with renewable supplies of energy, as opposed to just chucking out wind farms and plastering over roof tops with solar panels. Now, not that I’m opposed to the latter two objectives. It’s just we need to have more joined up thinking and a clearer idea of what we’re trying to achieve and where we are going with this policy.

Figure 16 – Solar Thermal Collecter (Tube & Pipe design) [Credit: Solar Thermal Magazine, 2010]

In another example take transport energy, representing around 36% of the UK energy demand (i.e. roughly similar to what is expended on heat and much more than we devote to electricity). One of the reasons why oil has dominated transport is that it is, quite simply put, the ideal fuel source for vehicles. It’s got a high energy density, liquid (thus easily transferred, and storable) and readily combustible with little residue. It is the transport sector and anything that depends on it, such as for example tourism and international trade, that will take a severe hammering from the peak oil transition. Indeed it occurs to me that this is probably where attention should be focused rather than obsessing over electricity supplies, which to be fair are not under any immediate threat (the lassie-faire energy policy of the UK and USA does put electricity supplies under threat in the near future but this is a failure of government policy rather an intrinsic lack of fuel or solutions).

So how do we keep the transport network running in an energy scarce future? Well first of all, we need to make vehicles more fuel efficient (more on that later). Also I suspect we’ll again need to start matching demand to supply. Short range transport vehicles or those that follow fixed routes (trains, trams or trolley vehicles) are best met with electricity. Longer range, high performance vehicles will need to be converted over to either biofuels, or hydrogen (or possibly a degree of both).

The will naturally require some significant new infrastructure to support it. The problems encountered installing trams in Edinburgh or new High Speed railway lines in England should highlight the difficulty and expense involved in such proposals. Consider also if we were to convert a substantial number of the UK’s cars to battery electric how are you going to power them all? Assuming their chargers ran on 3 phase supply, and assuming, say 1 million of them being used for the morning commute at peak rush hour. Once all those cars plugged into the grid over the course of a few minutes, there would be a sudden demand for 7.5 GW’s of electricity, right in the middle of the mid-morning peak!

Figure 18, HDVC valves being prepared for an offshore windfarm

The global electricity grid will have to be rebuilt to cope with such demands, with a new separate “smart grid” emerging, likely using HVDC lines. As I discuss in this article, it also might even be necessary for us to do away with the concept of private motoring altogether and go for some sort of car pooling policy in future. And of course public transport is much more energy efficient that cars. While as a cyclists I’d argue that a bike is probably the best way to get around town…if only there were cycle lanes to ride on!

Energy Efficiency

But to be fair, trying to meet our current demand for energy, in light of the pressures we will be imposing, is going to be a tall order, if not impossible. Indeed it should be remembered that we’ll need not just to maintain existing energy output, but grow it substantially, due to rising energy demands of emerging economies like China, India, Brazil as well as moving the third world out of poverty. Again, keen as I am on renewables, I doubt we could ever produce the stuff that quickly to cope with these future energy trends.

Figure 19, A Zero Carbon home concept

So we need to start using energy smarter. Fortunately, there is plenty of room for improvement. The bulk of domestic energy consumption in the UK for example is in buildings, most of which are poorly insulated. Refurbishment of existing building stock and stricter building codes, ones that require buildings to be as well insulated as possible (ideally to Passivhaus standards) as well as build with low embodied energy embodied.html and even integrated renewables systems, will all serve to pull down domestic energy consumption. Certain products that are notoriously energy wasteful, such as storage heaters and electric hot water heaters should also be banned outright, as indeed Australia (of all places) recently did ban electric hot water cylinders. CHP and district heating systems also offer the potential to significantly reduce energy demand.

Figure 20 – Energy Consumption of vehicles by speed and performance [Credit: adapted from J.D. Chapman (1989) Geography and Energy: Commercial Energy Systems and National Policies, New York: Longman Scientific & Technical]

Transport is the next biggest energy waster. As noted earlier, clearly vehicles need to get smaller, lighter and more fuel efficient. While the Jeremy Clarkson brigade may whinge and complain, long term we’d be doing them a favour. If it’s left to the laws of capitalism to impose the inevitable cuts, the result is many motorists who suddenly find themselves unable to afford petrol and with a gas guzzling car that they cannot sell (as after all in a future era of high oil prices who would want to buy a gas guzzler!). Indeed the resale value of SUV’s is already very poor.

Figure 21 – Is this the future of motoring?

As I point out, even without any particularly huge technological advances, vehicles can be made much more fuel efficient. Public transport needs to be encouraged at the expense of air travel and cars. The simplest way to do this, in the UK at least, is renationalisation (part or full) of public transport and removal of the subsidies currently granted to the road lobby and air travel. Combine all of this with some modest improvements in technology (Stirling hybrid engines, fuel cells…maybe! Composite vehicle bodies, hydrogen powered planes), its not difficult to envisage us getting by with a fraction of the current fuel demand.

Stuff!

A big chuck of our energy use is also tied up with “stuff” a catch all term I use to describe everything from small electrical gadgets to all manner of consumer products and services or out of season fruit from far away. These can all have a particularly high carbon footprint, which will need to be cut.

Figure 22, Some slightly Ironic anti-consumerism protesters!

The simplest way for most of us to cut our energy demand is by buying as much local produce as possible. Although, I’ll admit that this is easier said than done in some areas! (there is for example only one country market near me and only every 2nd week!). Of course, as always it’s important to put things in context, if you drive to a local farmers market in your SUV you’re not doing anyone any favours (personally I walk or cycle).

Then there is recycling to consider, which not only reduces pollution due to landfill, incineration or other more serious problems (see the Great Pacific Trash Vortex) associated with our “throw away” consumer society. But there is another reason to recycle, and it boils down to energy. Recycling materials greatly reduces the energy costs associated with using said material, thus reducing global energy demands. Also, as I point out in this article the life cycle energy costs of products needs to be considered not just the energy use. Consequently a product with a long service life is better, as it allows for the embodied energy invested in it to last much longer.

The Energy and Ecological Deficits

Much has been made recently about the deficit problems in various nations. Many Western countries are simply living beyond they’re means borrowing money cheaply from foreign creditors because they don’t want to make unpopular decisions, such as cutting public spending to special interest groups or raising taxes. As I’ve pointed out in my comments this topic, a combination of some modest cuts to spending, mostly to things we neither need nor are getting value for money (in the US the military budget would be top of my list) and introduce new taxes to raise government income up to a sustainable level.

Figure 23 – One of our biggest obstacle’s as a society, some people can’t handle the truth!

In some respects we are also in a state of Ecological debtand “Energy debt”. We are “spending” (if that’s the right word…raping seems more appopriate!) our energy and ecological resources at an unsustainable rate, and inflicting environmental harm that will cost us dearly in decades to come. This is largely being done because our leaders don’t want to take unpopular decisions such as raising the costs of driving or flying or committing public (or private capital) to major infrastructure projects that will take decades to bare fruit (i.e. the benefits will be realised by future governments and the present leadership will be unable to take credit for any of it).

In this situation however, we are not borrowing from foreign creditors, but borrowing from ourselves and future generations, and paying an absurd level of interest (in the form of the higher levels of pollution and using the planet’s energy endowment in ways that are less efficient) for the privilege. Consequently this is one deficit we cannot default on….not unless someone knows of a new planet we can all abscond too! Our ecological and energy deficit will be collected, with interest, by a repo man called “Reality” and reality is a lousy creditor who makes even the nastiest back alley loan shark look pretty soft in comparison.

Figure 24 – Three future scenarios, as envisaged by R. Crumb….I’m not sure if any are likely!

There are, unfortunately, no “quick fixes” available to our future energy problems. In a similar vein to the financial crisis, the solution is a combination of sensible cuts in our energy use (and ultimately, significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions). Concurrently, we need to start rolling out new forms of energy production. Renewables energy can go along way, aided by the dying embers of ancient starlight and what limited output we get from (likely) dwindling nuclear power output. But there needs to be more joined up thinking. As I’ve pointed out, any future energy strategy needs the right infrastructure to support such a roll out.

But of course necessity is the mother of invention. As the energy transition hits, it’s possible that this will create the incentive needed to bring about new technological advances that will ease the situation somewhat. New materials that that allow buildings to be much more energy efficient or vehicles that are ultra lightweight and fuel efficient may be developed. New technologies for energy generation may well appear (solar hydrogen for example or Synthetic Biology being another). Indeed given the pressure, I suspect such advances and some projects will almost certainly appear. However the point I make in this article is that these advances are unlikely to appear in sufficient time and be build at a sufficient scale to offset the present crises (and we’d be fools to blindly assume new technologies do emerge!). Then there are various slightly “wacky” renewable energy “mega” projects (such as a line of giant wind turbines the length of the US midwest, DESERTEC, Daming the Berring Straits, “Deep” geothermal, etc.). Unlikely they’ll be built (at least on the scale envisaged by some), but desperate times may well call for desperate measures!

The Future of EnergyFigure 25, The Future shape of energy?

But in all probability in all, we’ll have to get by in future using less and live more modest lives. Current economic “growth” (depending on how you define “growth”) and consumerism cannot be sustained. I suspect a future world will get by with an advanced level of technology, but a generally much lower level of energy use per capita (at least in the West, by present standards much of the world will grow in terms of energy use per capita). There will for example be still cars in the distant future and international air travel. It’s just we won’t use either as cheaply or as unreservedly as we do now. The nuts and bolts of how such systems function will be radically different without oil. It could well be not unusual to see someone riding along on a horse, or a bicycle while fiddling with some high tech gizmo!

But like the financial deficit, the longer we ignore our ecological and energy deficit, the harder it becomes to solve them. And the more likely it becomes that Mother Nature or Reality sends some of they’re heavies (Famine, Hurricane, War or Drought) around to “remind” us about said deficit by tossing us down a few stairs!