Pathways to the Post-Carbon Economy

Back in June, Nafeez Ahmed published an article, 3 ways Clean Energy will make Big Oil extinct in 12 to 32 Years — without subsidies, that provoked critical feedback from a reader. True to his stated mission to redesign investigative journalism for the 21st century based on ‘generative dialogue’, Nafeez responded with an offer to run a symposium via his online publication ‘Insurge Intelligence, to explore a wider spectrum of perspectives on his article’s theme. The symposium, Pathways to the Post-Carbon Economy, responds to the framing question ‘how do we transition away from fossil fuels toward societies that are both environmentally sound and prosperous, allowing their members to live fulfilling, meaningful lives?’ So far it has featured eight articles, from Mark Disendorf, Graham Palmer, Saral Sarkar, Ted Trainer, Jonathan Rutherford, Felix Fitzroy and me.

My contribution, which Resilience.org also ran as it’s feature article, is reproduced in full below, including Nafeez’s editorial intro.

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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.

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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