Worldviews and energy futures

In last week’s post I linked to an article published recently in the Journal of Futures Studies (JFS) in which I look at the relationship between the questions that we ask about energy futures, what it is that we then take into account as relevant in exploring them, and the possible avenues for action that are apparent to us in the present as a result. As I pointed out, that article acts as a pretty good overview of the inquiry here at Beyond this Brief Anomaly, and also prepares the way for the phase into which this will head shortly. Before embarking on this next phase, it occurred to me that it might be worth dusting off some earlier work on which the JFS article was based that goes a little further in sketching out the background context for the inquiry, and that will help with locating the areas covered to date within that broader context. Continue reading

A rough guide to visualising energy density

In concluding the previous post, I pointed out the problem with comparing stock-based energy sources—such as fossil fuels and uranium—with flow-based sources—such as wind and solar radiation—on the basis of their associated energy densities. [Update: strictly speaking, we’re dealing here with the distinction between energy density and power density. While energy density is a straightforward and very useful way to characterise and compare energy storage media such as fuels and batteries, the infrastructure for producing fuels and electricity is often better characterised in terms of power density—the rate of energy transformation or supply per spatial unit. This reflects the more immediate dependence of a particular set of socio-economic arrangements, if it’s to be maintained, on its associated energy supply rates, rather than its energy reserves. For now though, I’ll continue the inquiry based on the concept of energy density, as it is arguably the more accessible concept given the nature of our direct experience with fuels—including our own fuels, the food that we eat!] Just to recap on the previous post, establishing a characteristic energy density for a given source requires that we first nominate an appropriate spatial dimension associated with that source. This is straightforward for stock-based sources involving a given quantity of material such as coal, oil or gas, and we can readily compare the energy densities between different sources. The characteristic spatial dimension is the volume occupied by the source material. Continue reading

Energy density and the prospects for renewably-powered societies

In the post prior to last week’s, I looked in some detail at the energy densities associated with each of the conventional fossil fuels that together account for over 80 percent of global primary energy supply. As I pointed out, the highly concentrated nature of these energy sources is a fundamental enabling factor in relation to the forms of social and economic organisation that have evolved over the course of the industrial age. The norms, expectations habits and tendencies with which we live together today—and that for most of us, most of the time, remain largely below our thresholds of awareness—are intertwined in various ways with the characteristics of our energy sources. Different energy sources necessarily entail differences in these characteristics. In transitioning between energy source regimes, if key characteristics associated with an emerging regime differ sufficiently from those with which our major techno-economic infrastructure and socio-cultural institutions have developed, then at some point the infrastructure and institutions will themselves need to change for the process of transition to proceed. When such transition points are reached, the connections between energy resources and cultural expectations can no longer remain submerged from view: we’re required to confront the changing situation, and in many cases, we too must undergo our own transformations, individually and collectively. Continue reading

In praise of fossil fuels—Part 2: the remarkable legacy of ancient life

Over the past quarter century, the justifiably deep concern held by many of us about climate change has led to a shift in humanity’s relationship with fossil fuels—burning of which accounts for well over 60 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. This relationship seems to have shifted from what  might be roughly characterised as ‘appreciative ambivalence’ (as long as the supply spigots remained open) towards uneasiness at first and more recently, even open animosity. Given the bad rap that fossil fuels get from many of us now, there’s more than a little irony in the fact that, even beyond the idea that the modern human identity is shaped—as I suggested last week—in the image of fossil fuels, we humans and the energy sources that enable our present ways of living are expressions of the same Earth-centred and carbon-based life continuum. As the remnants of vast accumulations of deceased organisms laid down over millions of years, fossil fuels are in a manner of speaking a gift left to us by our ancient selves. Granted, holding such a view requires that we first adopt a bio-centric sense of identity—an identity with all Earth-based life across evolutionary time. Assuming such a default mode of self-understanding may be taking things just a little too far for some readers. In the interests of advancing the systemic intent of our inquiry though, this is perhaps not an entirely unreasonable suggestion, at least as a provocation to new thinking about our collective situation i.e. a perspective with which to experiment in order to see what it might reveal. Continue reading