Thursday, June 30, 2016

Our Renewable Future

This picture from a modern solar farm is borrowed from a very interesting new book:
“Our Renewable Future” by Richard Heinberg and David Fridley, Fellows of the Post
Carbon Institute in the US.

I find the book so important that I like to share some of its narrative with the
development professionals and readers of Boidus – very condensed and abridged, of
course, but hopefully enlightening for its readers.

Ugo Bardi, professor at the University of Florence in Italy and vividly writing and
blogging about resource depletion, system modeling, climate science and renewable
energy writes about this book:

“The future of renewable energy is obscured by ignorance, noise, ideology, and all
sorts of misconceptions. Our Renewable Future describes the reality: the transition is
possible, but it wont be easy.”

According to the authors they have been ‘tiptoeing’ through the renewable minefield
and consequently they are presenting the mainstream (boosters) as well as dissident
views (critics) on the renewable energy complex that we must handle when heading
to a renewable future, whether we are ready or not. Depending on how quickly and
intelligently we move the transition along, daily life could improve or deteriorate
significantly, but will never be the same, we understand from the authors analysis.
Energy is embedded in so many aspects of modern life and we need serious
discussions about the future of economy, consumerism and economic justice and
equity. And new skills and concepts are needed for the development professionals
and physical planners re. buildings, construction, infrastructure, urban design and
communication. It is also important to revise, change and transform contemporary
technologies and its problematic footprint in the developed world - a tremendous task
to reach a sustainable post-modern future. It must be remembered that all we in the
industrialized world have built so far is to suit the characteristics of fossil fuel and a
change of mind is needed!

Apart from these general basics, we have to make the transition away from fossil
fuels that are soon depleted and on the way out (and nuclear power is not a realistic
substitute) and successfully re-think and re-tool how we use energy – and how much
we use – not just its source. When bio-fuel is basically out (except for aviation and a
few farmers with suitable waste) - you remember the report that stated the simple
fact that even if every tilled field on earth is producing bio-fuel instead of food, it will
only be enough for our present communications and fracking also soon out as hyped
up way of “scraping the drums” (as oil professionals say – and delusions about Saudi
America), leaves renewable solar and wind, for better or for worse, as society’s
future energy sources. The inevitable transition of technologies and the fact that
renewable energy will not possibly meet future ‘eternal growth’ but possibly a
restricted but decent standard level of what we now have, will also force us to live
differently – more sustainable and in accordance with the resources he have and can
recycle for the future.

As I see it, a transition to a renewable future is necessary for the existence of
humans and most life on earth. We are already experiencing the climate change with
all its consequences, created by the blindfolded industrial society and already many
limits are reached or are very soon reached – so called tipping points for continued
safe life on earth. Unprecedented hurricanes, flooding and droughts are everyday
happening where it shouldn’t happen, distress, calamity, hunger and death are
everyday news and all created by burning of fossil fuel. We have a responsibility to
arrest as much of this as possible. At least not enhance the problems we have
created. But this is not an easy task as the decisions are political and unfortunately,
the debate is already quite polarized and politicized. As a result, realism and nuance
may not have much of a constituency. I guess it’s time for emergency committees
and political crisis coalitions instead of the usual party overbids on eternal growth
and progress.

However, everything is not well in the renewable energy field – the majority of the
solar and wind supporters are delusive albeit they disdain fossils and nukes and are
convinced that solar and wind have unstoppable momentum and will eventually bring
with them lower energy prices and millions of jobs, contrary of those who say that
intermittent energy sources are inherently incapable of sustaining modern industrial
societies and can be build only with massive government subsidies as being “not
bankable” any longer.

Despite the conclusions stated above, the authors didn’t set out to support or
undermine these two messages. Instead they made a thorough account and analysis
of what renewable energy sources are capable of doing and how a transition toward
them is going – there were only two basic assumptions. Fossil fuels are soon history
and nuclear power unrealistic in the long run.

It is interesting to examine the large scale use of solar and wind power as basis for
industry and national power grids. I will in coming columns highlight some disturbing
facts among many positive developments that I happened to find on various sites like
e.g. Resilience, Post Carbon Institute and many personal blogs by dissident energy

It is positive that that a few countries have taken the first steps on the “renewal
road”. We will have a quick look in coming columns and now I like to conclude this
text with some basic points from Our Renewable Future book we are dealing with:

  •  We have developed much during the industrial period and most was undertaken
with the tacit assumption that societies always have more fossil energy with which
to maintain and operate its ever expanding infrastructure – without any long-
range planning guiding. The fossil-fueling of the economy happened bit by bit,
each new element building on the last, with opportunity leading to innovation.
What was technically possible became economically necessary…and hence
  •  There is a problem with the mindset with most of modern (voting) man – the ignorance of the realities of changing conditions for the future. Solar, wind, hydro and geothermal generators produce electricity, and we already have an abundance of technologies that rely on electricity. So why should we need to change the ways we use energy? Presumably all that’s necessary is to unplug coal power plants, plug in solar panels and wind turbines and continue living as we do currently, they seem to think;
  •  But the next few decades are forced to to see a profound and all-encompassing energy transformation throughout the world. Whereas society now derives the great majority of its energy from fossil fuels, by the end of the century we will depend primarily on renewable sources like solar, wind, biomass and geotechnical power.
  •  How would a 100% renewable world look and feel? How might a future generation move through a typical day without using fossil fuels either directly or indirectly? Where will the food come from? How will they move from place to place? What will the buildings they inhabit look like, and how will those buildings function? Visions of the future are always wrong in detail and often even in broad strokes; but sometimes they can be wrong in useful ways. Development professionals, architects and planners must start thinking about this to avoid too many mistakes done now that will constitute hindrances for a well functioning renewable future!
Our renewable future will have many problems and a few energy projects are already after some years indicating massive over-cost implications, doubtful environmental consequences and failures not predicted after just a few years of testing. We have to deal with these as well as the positive experiences in the next column.

After 19 years of facing the wind, this German turbine fell to it. It’s starting to happen a lot. It is estimated that more than 1000 turbines of the existing 25000 must be decommissioned every year at an enormous cost due to aging.

Jan Wareus       16/06/2016

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