What is the potential for renewable energy?

In the most recent posts last year, I looked in some detail at what the energy costs of energy supply imply for global-scale transition from fossil fuels to (mostly) renewable energy (RE) sources. The modelling presented there highlighted the importance of taking a dynamic view of transition – rather than just looking at the start and end states. If we’re serious about identifying feasible transition pathways, this type of approach has an important role to play. It’s reassuring to see that more significant effort is starting to be made in this area.

One reason this has been slow to gain traction is the idea that renewable energy sources are so abundant as to be without practical limits. It’s a popular and compelling story, but unfortunately, also one that obscures as much as it reveals. Here, I’ll explain why, and set out the detailed case for why we are much better served by thinking in terms of the practically realisable potential for renewable energy, rather than the raw physical flows. At the heart of this is a basic insight, expressed in a simple aphorism: ‘each joule of energy is not equal’. Continue reading

Economic Trend Report: Energy Descent, Transition and Alternatives to 2050

For the past few months, I’ve focused the time available for Beyond this Brief Anomaly on background research and modelling aimed at testing more rigorously some of the conclusions towards which the inquiry has pointed so far. This has come at the cost of keeping things active here though. I’m planning to share some of the results of this work shortly. In the meantime, I was recently looking back over a piece of work on energy transition as a key economic trend that I did last year for a client. It occurred to me that it provides a remarkably good summary of the inquiry’s findings to date, and sets out many of the conclusions that I’ve been stress testing behind the scenes. The report below is a version of the original briefing paper revised slightly for a more general audience than the original. It was last updated in November 2014, but for the most part— save perhaps for updated global oil production data and the post-price plunge tight oil situation in the USA—it continues to be relevant today. Also, the brief comments in relation to battery storage may, to some readers at least, seem rather at odds with the popular view that has gained such a significant boost in recent months. More on that when I report on the background work I’ve been up to.

Download the report pdf.

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The distribution of energy wealth

At the end of last week’s post, I pointed out that while breaking down aggregate global energy use by source starts to give us a more nuanced view of what it takes to enable our collective economic activity in physical terms, this still treats humanity as a single “giga-individual”. We’ll have a much better sense of the global picture if we look at how the collective view is made up in terms of energy use distribution across different groups of individuals. This is the contextual dimension that we’ll focus on in this post. Continue reading

Energy and the biophysical view of economic activity: from joules to fuels

The view of humanity’s energy supply and use presented last week painted a picture in the most abstract terms. The aggregate figures discussed there can be viewed as an attempt to describe all significant economic activity by means of a single quantitative measure. Such efforts may well have a familiar tone—in a sense, the data that the IEA provides in energy terms is a physical-world analogue to the financial-world perspective provided by bodies such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—the IEA’s parent inter-governmental body—when it measures global economic activity in terms of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. In this sense, we could view the 510 EJ total primary energy supply (TPES), and 350 EJ total final consumption (TFC) in 2009 as the energetic equivalent of saying that in 2009, global aggregate GDP was around US$60 trillion. Continue reading

Fueling an industrial world

With the initial phase of Beyond this Brief Anomaly’s inquiry complete, we now have in place the basic foundations that we’ll need for exploring our contemporary human situation from an energetic perspective. There’s much scope for introducing further technical detail—the physics and engineering perspective if you like—and we’ll certainly need that if we’re to develop the kind of energy literacy that I think will be beneficial in navigating the societal challenges and dilemmas we face. From here on in though, I’ll try to situate that in the context of the immediate questions that might be prudent for us, as a collective humanity, to consider as we work out how we’re going to live together on this physically finite and rather precious planet of ours.

It will come as no great surprise that I regard some of the most important questions we face as having energetic dimensions. In fact, draw the boundary wide enough—and in most cases, “wide enough” is not all that far—and questions around how we source our energy, and what we do with the energy so sourced, have critical implications for every significant challenge that confronts us. This is a straightforward entailment of the way that, as we’ve seen over the past couple of months, the energy concept relates to how we understand any situation in terms of its most fundamental physical aspects. Roughly speaking, the greater the scale of physical activity associated with any situation we’re dealing with—or on which that situation is itself dependent—the more likely it is that we’ll need to come to terms with its energetics. And given the nature of our principal energy sources, the longer the characteristic time horizon associated with any situation of interest, the more important its energetic aspects become. This is our starting point for today’s post, which in turn is intended to set the scene for the next inquiry phase. Continue reading