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The Three Energy Revolutions

Greg Studen  |  09/03/09 @ 1:43pm

The key to the crisis of sustainability is energy--where do find it, how do we use it, how do we deal with the consequences of energy extraction and  use. The discovery and development of fossil fuels has made possible the industrial revolution with all the great material benefits that have flowed from abundant energy and the technologies that it supports. Now we are faced with a double crisis: first, the pollution and atmospheric warming from the burning of carbon-based fuels threaten to make life as we know it difficult if not impossible; second, supplies of these fuels are finite, and we must begin to replace them with permanent sources of energy within the time frame of the next generation. In order to deal with the twin energy crisis we are going to have to bring about a revolution in the way we produce and use energy. This revolution will take us away from the burning of fossil fuels and into a permanent, non-polluting and non-warming energy system. In fact, we can think of the required energy revolution as three separate revolutions. The first revolution will a quantum leap in energy efficiency, so that we extract far more useful work from both existing supplies of fossil fuels and the new replacement energy sources. The second revolution will be an explosion of new technologies that will allow us to exploit solar energy, the ultimate, permanent (five billion years, plus or minus), non-polluting energy source. The third revolution will be a dramatic change in human values that will disconnect the quest for human happiness from the amount of energy that we use, replacing the goal of more, faster, and bigger with less, slower, and smaller.   The easiest, fastest energy revolution is the opportunity to achieve fantastic increases in energy efficiency. Historically, the record of industrial civilization in energy efficiency has not been good. It wouldn't be far wrong to say that probably half of all the fossil fuel energy (coal, oil, natural gas) that was in the ground at the start of the industrial revolution in about 1750 has been wasted. "Wasted" in the sense that it was either deliberately or carelessly thrown away, or more likely, was burned in a grossly inefficient manner. The good news is that abundant technologies for getting more of what we want with less use of energy exist today, and new technologies are coming into the marketplace at a furious pace. Numerous opportunities for efficiency improvements are available with tremendously high paybacks. In fact, efficiency investments are so profitable that that there is no economically rational excuse for not investing, if capital is available.  Where capital is scarce, the US House of Representatives has recognized the problem, and has included a substantial revolving loan fund for efficiency improvements in last summer's climate change bill (the American Clean Energy and Security Act). See here for a note on the importance of the loan fund to supporting efficiency improvements. Where capital is available, what's holding us back from major improvements is a combination of  habit, inertia, lack of knowledge, and significantly, a misperception of both how serious the energy crisis is, and how profitable the investment in efficiency can be. The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. has been a leader in investigating the costs and benefits of various technologies that might help us to reduce fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the atmosphere. See here for a detailed report, including a dramatic graphical presentation of the tremendous opportunity offered by efficiency improvements. Here are a few examples from their analysis of fairly simple efficiency improvements that actually will pay us by 2030, rather than costing us, to abate CO2 emissions. All these involve technologies that are available and in use today, but await fuller deployment in the market:     ?    LED lighting to replace incandescent     ?    High efficiency appliances (freezers, fridges, ovens, washers & dryers, etc.)     ?    Residential heating and cooling retrofits to high efficiency     ?    Residential insulation improvements     ?    Full hybrid cars     ?    More efficient motors     ?    Industrial and commercial heating, cooling, and lighting improvements The list goes on. Incremental efficiency improvements are available in every system we use, particularly when we buy or build new.  Keep in mind that pressures on oil supplies and tremendous, and that the cost of all fossil fuels will certainly rise steadily over the coming decades. The critical step in increasing the deployment of more efficient energy devices is the knowledge of owners and specifiers of building and equipment. This includes homeowners, builders, architects, engineers, and business managers. As more people become aware of the tremendous payback in efficiency improvements, the flow of capital into this area will become a flood. The second revolution is the proliferation and improvement of technologies that allow us to exploit the power of the sun to provide our energy needs. The main players here are direct capture of solar energy and wind power (wind is actually a "solar" technology because winds are driven by differential heating of the Earth's surface and atmosphere by the sun).  Direct capture includes photovoltaic cells, which convert the energy of sunlight directly into electricity. Another form of direct capture is solar thermal, which uses solar energy to heat a liquid.  The hot liquid, which may be water, can then be used for its heat value, or it can drive a turbine to generate electricity.   Wind power is growing rapidly. Like solar, its main drawback is that it is intermittent, and varies greatly from place to place. Together with improvements in generating efficiency, work is proceeding rapidly on two fronts to meet the problem caused by fluctuations in wind and solar energy. The first front is in storage capacity. Research on improved batteries is proceeding very rapidly. At the same time, other storage technologies like pumped hydroelectric storage and compressed air storage (in underground caverns) show great potential. The second front in attacking the intermittency is in electric grid improvements. Better grid management and improved wiring will allow energy to be rapidly transferred from one location to another.  A so-called "smart grid" will sense where power is needed, and where it is being generated, and will quickly match supply and demand. To take advantage of the intense solar power potential of the American Southwest, high voltage direct current lines will carry large amounts of power across the country with minimal losses. Many other new technologies promise to provide the energy needed to power our society while we phase out the burning of fossil fuels. Plug-in hybrids and electric cars will cut the fuel consumption of personal transportation dramatically. Increased use of new electric-driven rail will carry freight and people at a fraction of the cost of air or road transport. New power-monitoring devices will permit much more efficient tailoring of power sources to needs. There is great promise and optimism that the twin revolutions in energy efficiency and the development of new technologies will permit us to create an essentially carbon-free energy economy by about 2050, which is when climate scientists tell us we have to reduce our average American CO2 by about 90% to avoid a substantial chance of very damaging consequences from global warming. However, there is a real danger that we will not reach our goal without the third, and more profound revolution. This third revolution will require a change in values, in which our happiness is determined not by how much energy we use, but by how little. The deepest challenge of our current energy crisis stems from the fact  that energy is the currency of wealth. Everybody focusses on money as the measure of wealth, but in fact money is an artificial token which can make you rich only if it can buy you energy. (See my earlier post, "What is Wealth," here. For an additional very useful discussion of the relationship between energy flow and wealth, see here.) It is energy that gives us our cars, houses, food, travel, entertainment, and all the "stuff" that we enjoy. During the growth industrial era, when fossil fuel energy was relatively very abundant, the advanced industrial economies learned to used energy profligately, and it bought us our high material standard of living. Now, the true cost of energy is going up rapidly, because demand from a growing world population of seven billion is putting tremendous pressure on supply, and also the pollution and global warming effects of fossil fuel use are beginning to overwhelm the planet. The challenge is now to shift from an economic and social system where wealth is determined by the ability to command the maximum amount of energy, to one where true wealth becomes the ability to satisfy our needs with the minimum amount of energy. It is impossible to predict what the new energy economy will look like in, say, fifty or one hundred years. However, it is safe to say that our descendants will not be using energy the way we are in the United States. The flux of available solar energy, though abundant, will not be able to support, on a worldwide scale, the kind of energy intensive housing, transportation system, food choices, travel, and consumer-goods economy that middle class Americans have become accustomed to. Efficiency and the new solar economy will help a lot, but still we not be able to have a world full of the energy-hogging amenities that we have come to associate with the good life. Items and activities that require a minimum of energy to make and use will be the order of the day. Given human ingenuity and adaptability, there is no doubt that the sum of  happiness in such a world will not be less than today's sum, and indeed there is ample room for improvement in ways that take little or no energy at all. The moral of this story, in keeping with the three revolutions described, is threefold. First, we must commit to maximum energy efficiency at every level--residential, commercial, industrial, housing, transportation, everything; we must start this right away and never let up the quest for more efficiency. Second, we must support, politically and with our consumer expenditures, solar energy technologies and the rapid shift away from the fossil fuel economy. Third, we must be willing to make choices that are based on a considered look at our energy use, and begin to change our lifestyles to minimize our use of energy. This means looking at how much things "cost," not in dollar terms, but in terms of the amount of energy they require to make and use.  Will this mean a lower of our "standard of living"? Not necessarily. In fact, a low-energy economy is most compatible with higher amounts of leisure time.  Just imagine spending your evenings in pleasant conversation with your friends and neighbors, after a meal of locally grown food, gathered in the courtyard of your compact cluster of zero-energy homes, while sitting around an LED-powered solar "fireplace."

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