man with dirty hands holds a lightbulb

Is the energy transition easy?

Few people alive today can remember when society ran on horsepower—power equal to 550 foot-pounds per second that an imaginary horse could muster. Such meagre power barely touches the sides today.

We are all products of the fossil fuel age, first coal and later oil and gas have given a billion or so of the wealthiest humans the lifestyle of kings. 

The energy pulse delivered wealth gain thanks to technology and infrastructure development, even in the less fortunate parts of the world. And it produced more humans, an additional six billion since the 1920s.

Near-free energy changed lifestyles and created a lot more people.

Only soon that energy pulse will come to an end.

Whether because we can no longer afford the damage caused by burning them or because fossil hydrocarbons are a nonrenewable resource, the era of oil, coal, and natural gas will come to an end in the foreseeable future.

Jason Bradford, Post Carbon Institute

No problem. That is what the energy transition is all about. 

By User:Sgbeer; adapted by User:Martinvl – This file was derived from: Horsepower plain.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0

Society is electrical, so all we have to do is generate electricity from renewable sources—solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal generators all produce electricity.  Build the capacity from these sources, and all is well. Indeed, there is even the option to grow alternatives to oil by using plants as biofuels.

Unfortunately, it’s more complicated. 

Here we take a little time and, hopefully, your attention to borrow from Jason Bradford to summarise a few reasons why the transition out of fossil fuels will be challenging.

Jason Bradford says six significant issues complicate the energy transition that all relate to how useful, efficient and convenient fossil fuels have become, given we built our technology around them.


Intermittency 

A society that runs on electricity needs that energy 24/7. The power has to be on all the time, or systems break down. 

Just as we need it all the time, electricity demand fluctuates. More is used on a 40℃ humid day in summer than when the temperatures are bearable.

Solar and wind are intermittent and inherently uncontrollable. If all the energy came from these sources, then substantial storage or long-range transfer system is necessary when demand outstrips immediate supply. The current solutions here—batteries and grid interconnections—both require infrastructure.

The other option is to reduce demand. More on this later.


Liquid fuels

There are many reasons we use so much oil. A crucial one is that oil is stable as a liquid, making it super easy to transport, pumped into vehicles and trickle fed into engines.

Oil refined into kerosene, gasoline and diesel powers nearly all our transportation. There are very few cars, trucks, ships or aeroplanes that can burn alternative fuels without costly retrofits. 

The reality is that a tiny proportion of transport infrastructure is easily electrified without wholesale replacement of vehicles that run on liquid fuel.

Again there is always the option to travel less and move fewer goods.


Other uses of fossil fuels

Other than transport and heating, fossil fuels provide high temperatures for manufacturing steel and other metals, cement, rubber, ceramics, glass, and many  manufactured goods. 

Fossil fuels serve as feedstocks for materials, especially plastics, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. One of the chemicals is ammonium, the primary ingredient in nitrogen fertilisers. The conversion of fossil energy into people came about through the Haber -Bosch process of fixing nitrogen into a usable fertilizer. 

There are substitutes for many of these uses and technologies could be invented for many more. The problem becomes the retrofitting of current facilities or building new factories that run on alternative inputs. It’s not just the cost either. Some of the products we cannot do without for even a season.


Area density of energy collection 

An oil rig has a small footprint as an energy source. 

It could become large if it leaks, but alternative energy sources, with the notable exception of geothermal, take up much more space with unavoidable costs, inefficiencies, and environmental impacts. 

Renewables avoid most of the greenhouse gas externalities of fossil fuel consumption. However, they still need resources—metals and plastics—and the infrastructure wears out, and after a time, it must be replaced.


Location 

The sun does not always shine, nor does the wind blow everywhere. Smart tools are available to select the best sites for wind farms and decide if solar panels work on your roof. You could be lucky or not.

If we put the infrastructure where it is windy or sunny most of the time, then shift the energy to where it is needed, the transmission lines for alternative energies offer the same construction and maintenance issues as the current energy grid.

But the real problem here is not that energy sources are distributed, but the demand is concentrated in population centres. Even if New York, Shanghai, or Berlin were the windiest, sunniest places on earth, the volume of people overwhelms the supply.

Note that geothermal energy is the best alternative energy solution for a distributed energy system.


Energy quantity 

Annual global energy consumption has grown exponentially over the last century to over 500 exajoules. This is more than even a massive build-out of solar and wind capacity during the next 35 years could deliver. 

The near one to one tether between energy use and economic growth is both a consequence and cause in the challenge of an energy transition. As the climate change COPs roll by each November the only sure result is that more energy was used in their leadup than in any of the previous meetings. It’s a realiity that diplomacy is unable to overcome.

Again we could use less energy or find a scalable alternative.

Photo by Arti Kh on Pexels

What sustainably FED suggests

I always went along with the assumption that fixing the fossil fuel conundrum of a finite resource with heavy externalities would be fixed with a transition to a cleaner energy source. 

I figured that the shift would take time and probably be clunky but it would happen because the demand for energy would drive innovation and investment.

What I now realise is… maybe not.

Popular alternative energy sources in the mix will not get humanity to energy sufficiency. They could get us to a place where less energy is used but even then there will be constraints, shortages and interruptions.

The energy transition is far from easy.

Just to keep 8 billion people alive will require a huge amount of exogenous energy. Solar and wind are good, but they are not enough. Not even close.

What is surprising is the silence around genuinely disruptive options such as geothermal, hydrogen and fusion technologies. These are clean, ubiquitous and have a much lower resource and externality footprint than wind or solar energy, and yet we hear very little about them.


Hero image from photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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