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Messing With The Paradigms

Feeling faint and fatigued by Climate Change news recently, with its tit-for-tat spats about Policy and Science and most of all the Economics; grappling with the detractors and wreckers on various channels, I decided to turn to another source of information, trusting to uncover a little alternative inspiration.

I wanted to find something that would be unburdened by corporate advertising, untainted by agendas of those with financial or political capital to be made from various shifts in Energy and Carbon; something transparent and sufficiently broad to avoid niche arguments.

I hit upon a Science book for children, you know, with primary colour diagrams and simplified English, and it was quite refreshing. But wrong.

The Oxford Illustrated Science Encyclopedia written 2001, reprinted with updates 2003, revised 2004, consultant editor Professor Richard Dawkins, ISBN 0-19-910711-4 is a pinnacle of accessible writing, for young and jaded alike.

But I’m sorry to report that this book is seriously out of date, even though it was printed in 2004, and it got me thinking. When people say that Climate Change and Energy Science is going to re-write the study books, I’m wondering how long it will take to filter down to the school classroom or the Christmas gift volume.

Let’s take a brief look at one section that caught my eye straight away : “Renewable resources”.

“In a tiny desert village in Rajasthan, India, and ordinary-looking lamp post shows how energy use is changing. This village has no electricity supply, but the lamp stores the Sun’s energy by day to light the village at night. In the future, all people will need everlasting sources of energy like this.”

Good start. Nice attempt to explain what “sustainable” means.

Also, note the use of the phrase “all people” : an admission that everyone in the world will need renewable power.

“We need energy sources to power all our machines and for cooking and heating in our homes. The Sun’s energy, or solar energy, is one of several renewable energy sources that produce energy all the time.”

Technically all energy on Earth is supplied by the Sun originally, apart from Geothermal energy that comes from the original hot ball of firey star dust that accreted to form the Planet, but then, technically, that energy too came from the Sun, apart from the radioactive sources of heat, but this is getting too detailed…

If the Earth weren’t circling, or elliptoiding, around the Sun, there would be no Marine Energy in tides and waves, and no Wind Power. But that’s being a bit picky of me, so I’ll let that one pass.

“At present we mainly use fuels to produce energy. Once burned, fuels are finished – they are not renewable. Our sources of fuel will run out in the future, and people will then depend on renewable energy.”

The use of the word “fuel” is interesting, as wood used as fuel should technically be described as renewable. I think the writer may be trying to simplify a bit too far.

“The world’s known reserves of oil and gas are likely to run out by 2050.”

Here, in a children’s reference book : the admission that hydrocarbon reserves are depleting ! Has nobody told the British Government who didn’t mention this in their new policy publications “The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan” ?

” Published Jul 17 2009 by Transition Culture : Archived Jul 17 2009 : A Transition Take on the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan by Rob Hopkins : …The ‘P’ Word : While the terms ‘Transition’ (with a small T) and ‘climate change’ are used liberally, the term ‘peak oil’ never makes an appearance. Clearly this Plan is based on the assumption that economic growth is still feasible and that the cheap energy exists to make it possible, and that a gentle descent of the UK’s oil dependency is possible. In this context, peak oil is a bit like the drunken ex-partner who turns up at the wedding, who everyone tries to ignore, but their being ignored doesn’t mean that they aren’t there, or that they aren’t going to do something mortifying at some unspecified moment. However, given that the UK Government seems to have an inbuilt inability to ever mention the ‘P’ word, it does open the Plan with a sentence which comes as close as we seem likely to get; “In Britain, as our own reserves in the North Sea decline, we have a choice; replace them with ever-increasing imports, be subject to price fluctuations and disturbances in the world market and stick with high carbon, or make the necessary transition to a low carbon, right for climate change, energy security and jobs”. The focus seems to be, however, purely on the depletion of North Sea production, not global production. This is in spite of the IEA’s recent upgrading of global depletion rates, which the Government, which bases its take on peak oil on the IEA, has yet to respond to…”

“Energy bill rises to tackle climate change are tiny : Compared with wildly fluctuating wholesale gas and electricity prices, the cost of cutting emissions will scarcely be detectable on future energy bills : Posted by George Monbiot Wednesday 15 July 2009 15.43 BST : …There is, however, a government policy, or absence of policy, which does threaten both to exacerbate fuel poverty and accelerate economic collapse: its flat refusal to make contingency plans for the possibility that global supplies of oil (and, presumably, gas) will one day peak. Peak oil and gas will wreck more than the government’s plans for eliminating hypothermia: it will make all current economic and environmental planning redundant. Yet, in the 228 pages of today’s white paper about our future energy supplies, you won’t find a word about it.”

Back to the Science Encyclopedia, talking about 2050, when the Petroleum Oil and Natural Gas supplies will have “run out” :-

“Today’s nuclear power stations may have closed by then. Few new nuclear power stations are being built, as many people consider them too dangerous, although scientists hope that power from nuclear fusion will soon be a reality.”

Well, yes, people think nuclear power stations are dangerous, but that’s not the main reason for few new commissions of plant. It’s the costs, both short-term drains on infrastructure funds and the long-term drain on public money for radioactive waste disposal. This is the major factor in people-in-the-know resisting new nuclear power :-

“Nuclear Power ? No Point ! Darren Johnson AM : Green Party spokesperson on trade & industry…Investing resources in nuclear energy, including skills as well as cash, could help starve renewable energy of the resources it needs in the immediate future if we’re to make short-term as well as longer-term CO2 reductions…Nuclear power – including the associated costs applying the necessary safety measures and dealing with radioactive wastes – is simply too expensive to be seriously considered.”

And as for nuclear fusion ? Well, it’s no nearer reality than it was 40 years’ ago :
“Flight International Diamond Jubilee, 23 October 1969 : page 72 : The Aerospace Scene 1999 : …Research proceeds elsewhere on nuclear fusion power, the success of which would avoid an ultimate exhaustion of fossil fuels (this latter, however, is not expected before 1999!) The heavy electromagnetic components used in fusion research may seem impossibly heavy for aeronautical application, however, similar objections to the gas turbine were raised when Whittle’s prototype was being built. So perhaps we should not dismiss the possibility of airborne nuclear fusion engines yet.”
“The other nuclear power : Volume 18 Number 2, Hilary 2006 : Oliver Tickell : …Fusion sceptics might ask why it is that fusion seems to have been consistently 30 years away for the last 30 years. Llewellyn Smith has a clear, robust answer: ‘We have lost at least 15 years since 1969, when the tokamak emerged as the right way forward, because of delayed decisions and funding shortfalls. Even when the UK’s spending on fusion was at its peak, we were spending twenty times more on the fast breeder programme alone. For a long time the attitude was, “Fusion is complicated, it’s difficult, and what’s the worry? We have plenty of oil and gas and coal to burn.” But with climate change and declining oil and gas reserves, that is no longer a sensible attitude. There is a growing sense of urgency – a feeling that this is the time to go for it flat out.’ ”

Back to the Science Encyclopedia :-

“Coal will remain the only available fuel, and it could be used to make other fuels such as petrol. Known coal reserves will last for hundreds of years.”

Now, stop right there ! This is where we must seriously bust a paradigm. Coal reserves will not necessarily last for hundreds of years :-

China, with nearly 40% of the world’s coal reserves will use it all up within 50 years at current rates and trends :-

And more from the Science Encyclopedia :-

“Using more renewable energy will cut back on fuel and make reserves last longer.”

Not if we start major projects for Carbon Capture and Storage, which will eat up Coal faster than ever.

“Unlike fuels, renewable energy does not cause pollution and global warming, and it will reduce this damage too.”

Pretty optimistic, but then, towards the end of the piece is this bit of utterly depressing analysis :-

“Renewable resources do not produce much energy and are unlikely ever to meet all our energy needs. The International Energy Agency has forecast that by 2010, 3 per cent of all our energy will come from hydroelectric power and only 1 per cent from other renewable resources. Coal, oil and gas will provide 90 per cent of our energy.”

Hang on, it’s 2009 now. What are the statistics today ? It seems there are several different ways to count :-

“In 2006, about 18% of global final energy consumption came from renewables, with 13% coming from traditional biomass, such as wood-burning. Hydroelectricity was the next largest renewable source, providing 3% of global energy consumption and 15% of global electricity generation.”

“There are three different ways to count the share of renewable energy in global energy supply. All three are valid, but the differences between them sometimes cause confusion and distort perceptions about the relative contributions of different energy sources.”

“According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), approximately 18% of the world’s total energy generation is based on renewable sources (2006 figures), of which hydro power accounts for nearly 90%.”

So, some optimism there, surely ? Already ahead of the targets envisioned in 2004 ?

I want to bring you back to the most depressing piece of the article from the Science Encyclopedia :-

“One reason for this is that generating electricity by solar power is costly. But as the fuels needed to produce electricity become rarer, they will also be more expensive. Then the use of solar power should increase.”

If only the energy markets were actually free ! Then this piece of logic could hold some value. Sorry to say, but it looks as if the world’s major economies have realised the importance of having a more stable oil price, since oil forms the fat backbone of global energy consumption. Price fixing of petroleum and natural gas, by whatever means, would create a problem for Renewable Energy.

“G8 energy leaders urge stable oil prices : Sun May 24, 2009 2:25pm EDT : By Rania El Gamal and Silvia Aloisi : ROME (Reuters) – Consumer nations on Sunday urged producers to keep oil prices stable or risk derailing a fragile global economic recovery, as top exporter Saudi Arabia forecast prices eventually moving toward $75 a barrel. Group of Eight energy ministers were meeting in Rome against the backdrop of a price rally that has sent oil prices to a six-month high of more than $60 a barrel. “If oil prices do spike up considerably, that would be a factor in delaying economic recovery,” U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a news conference…”

Let me be clear, Renewable Energy is cheap in the running : operation and maintenance costs of most proposed and actual Renewables are minimal, and the fuel will remain forever free.

The problem is that, in moving from one energy infrastructure to another, massive costs are entailed in new investment.

That’s something that no market can fix.

Unless there is some exorbitant tax placed on Oil and Gas, (which there won’t be because of the political ramifications), then “relative market prices” will never be sufficient to tip the balance, and investment into Renewables simply won’t happen

There will not be a Renewable Energy future unless there is deliberate international governing policy to direct the funds there. And without a deliberate policy shift towards tooling up the Renewable Energy sector and rolling out the kit, there won’t be an industrialised future.

And that’s probably the biggest paradigm shift of the lot.

One reply on “Messing With The Paradigms”

“Unless there is some exorbitant tax placed on Oil and Gas, (which there won’t be because of the political ramifications),”

It is not just the political costs. High energy costs + intermittent supplies will kill business. And that will kill people. People without jobs can get very upset. It has been known to cause revolutions. And those are very bad for business.

The only way forward is to bring in alternative energy at below the cost of current sources. Then it becomes self financing. And cheap storage would help a lot too.

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