Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Our civilization is defined by the oil molecule

That's my husband's favourite saying.

Replacing oil (and by extension, all fossil fuels) is desirable because:
1. using them releases CO2, which is causing global climate disruption, and
2. it is becoming steadily more difficult to find cheap fossil fuels

However desirable it may be, however, it's pretty obvious that replacement will not be either easy or cheap.

Judging by history, bringing online a new energy source (example: coal) and having it displace an older one (example: straw/wood) will take many decades. The bigger the scale of the replacement required, the more complicated, expensive, and time-consuming it is. And the scale of our fossil-fuel use is truly staggering. If you look at history, there have been several occasions when we moved from one source of energy to another: from wood/straw to coal, from coal to oil, from oil to natural gas (still ongoing!) and now into "renewables".

Interestingly, these transitions have all been remarkably recent. Coal came online in 1840 (and still has 50% "market share"), oil in 1915, natural gas in 1930. The natural gas transition, of course, is still going at full speed (think: shale gas - of which there is plenty on the planet). The penetration rate of each new wave is lower (it takes longer), because the scale required for penetration has gotten much larger. Modern renewables are in their infancy, and cannot be expected to scale up to any appreciable energy share for many decades yet.

Each new generation of energy source relies heavily on the previous ones. Each new source requires brand new infrastructure (ex. intermittent solar and wind require massive buildouts of new power lines) that requires using the old power sources to put into place. This is why it is not possible to "get rid" of, for instance, coal. We will be burning coal for many decades into the future. Coal is required to make steel, which is a major ingredient for windmills. And for the machinery required to mine silicon, which goes into solar panels.

This makes it very difficult to imagine what a "sustainable" civilization might look like. Everything around us - modern digital technology, transportation, agriculture, pharma, construction, mining - is based on coal/oil/natural gas, and many of these things simply cannot be done on the required scale by renewable electricity alone. To take one key example: one needs pure carbon to make steel. Today, that carbon comes from coal. Making steel creates a lot of CO2. (In the past, charcoal was used, which is partly why Britain has no more forests. ) Without steel, we would not have our modern society. No internal combustion engines, for instance.

We are trapped in a CO2-generating civilization, and there is no easy route out. Renewables cannot be brought into existence, cannot be maintained and repaired, without continuing along the fossil fuel path for many decades.

The only way out is via regression - cutting energy use drastically and rethinking our commitment to steel, digital technology, and the internal combustion engine. But this is a discussion we are not having. We all want to believe that the next technological improvement will save us, enabling our lifestyle to continue.

Regression means capping our energy use, which can only come about on the scale required by government action. That's what a carbon tax does. It will make steel much more expensive, it'll make car ownership much more expensive, it'll make owning a new cell phone every 3 years impossible. It will make new infrastructure like electric mass transit more expensive. And yes, it will make "renewable" energy much more expensive, too. And that scares people - and no wonder. What about all the jobs?

But we are locked in for the next few decades - and they will get rough as climate disruption starts kicking in. It may well be that the economic consequences of climate disruption are such that we will  no longer be able to afford our energy-hungry society, in which case, the regression will be imposed on us.

Best start planning for that.

Remind me: why are we tinkering with the ALR again?

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