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

Energy transition, renewables and batteries: a systems view

In the concluding section of the report made available here last month, I hinted at a view on the role of batteries in global energy supply that, in the wake of the announcement from Tesla CEO Elon Musk on 30 April this year, may seem rather at odds with prevailing popular sentiment. I suggested there that, while significant numbers of electricity consumers will likely be motivated to go “off grid” as battery costs reduce, this will entail feedback effects with implications that can reasonably be expected to make for a change trajectory far less linear and predictable than many commentators envisage. Such a view is, of course, entirely consistent with the systemic approach to thinking about energy transitions for which Beyond this Brief Anomaly advocates.

In this post, I introduce the energy transition model I’ve been developing over the past few months, to help make better sense of the physical economic implications of a global energy shift in which wind and PV generation with battery buffering dominate electricity supply. Continue reading

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

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 1: establishing context

Comprehensive understanding of the environmental and resource implications for humanity’s economic activity involves thinking in terms of the full life cycles of our goods and services. Thanks in large part to the work of William McDonough and Michael Braungart, awareness of  “cradle to cradle” design thinking has spread beyond the worlds of industrial ecology and ecological economics to establish a toehold in popular sustainability-oriented discourse. Over the past decade or so, it has started to dawn on an increasing number of us that the things we consume on a daily basis are connected to a globe-spanning network of socio-ecological consequences the extent of which is belied by the apparently modest materiality of our “stuff”. It’s in the context of this awakening systemic insight that the concept of embodied energy has—at least amongst those of us with an interest in the relationships between the spheres of technology, society and environment—come to be meaningful. Here in Australia, particular effort has been directed towards making information about the embodied energy of housing construction materials widely available—and moreover, to making this understandable for people involved in making the decisions that this might inform.

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

Energy transitions, feasibility studies and the limits of abstraction: the case for a (soft) systems approach

As noted in my introductory post, over the past five years a number of prominent reports have concluded that transition from fossil-fuelled to renewably-powered economies is technically and economically feasible on national and even global scales, without need for change in the cultural landscape. They conclude that entire national energy infrastructures can be replaced—over periods ranging from 10 to 40 years—with little need for us to adjust our socio-economic expectations. In fact, given the roles assumed for large-scale centralised infrastructure in these studies, relatively few of us would need to be involved in the actual implementation, let alone decision making, planning and co-ordination. A common message seems to be that we shouldn’t expect to be inconvenienced by these technologically significant but socially, culturally and economically benign changes.

To most observers, presentation of such findings in the language of technical and economic feasibility may pass without much remark. From an engineer’s perspective though, it raises a flag. Technical and economic feasibility have quite a specific meaning in engineering parlance—in essence, this means that a) sufficient work has been done to be confident that overall cost will fall within a specified range; and b) that following from this, financiers’ expectations with respect to return on investment can be met. To be clear, none of the studies that I’m thinking of actually make such claims directly—this is just what is usually expected for infrastructure projects on the scale of millions through to multiple billions of dollars, prior to commencing engineering design. Given the enormous scale of the proposals we’re talking about—from hundreds of billions of dollars upwards—then they’d surely be expected to conform with established conventions in this respect. At least, this would be the case if approached as top-down, centrally-administered engineering projects. You may well query, though, why I’d assume such an approach. Given the unprecedented nature and scale of the proposals perhaps they would demand a fundamentally different approach to that which suits, say, construction of a single power station. That’s a question I’ll return to in due course. For now though, I’m simply taking my cue from the nature of the reports themselves, and the general method on which they are based: aggregation of generic public-domain data from a wide range of primary and secondary sources, along with original work involving a variety of desk-based modelling techniques.
Continue reading