Responses: 3. Decreased Consumption and Deep Structural Change

Section
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
Page
8.6

As alluded to in 8.5, there is a group loosely positioned within the ‘renewables camp’, but sees it as just part of the solution to the problems of finite energy resources and pollution/climate change. This group perceives the enormity of the problem, as well as the bigger picture of galloping growth and energy consumption, and believes that the only way forward, whether through voluntary, planned mechanisms, or involuntarily through forms of breakdown and collapse, is a lower-energy future, powered largely by renewables, and a steady-state or dynamic-equilibrium economy.

A very interesting paper representative of some of this group’s thinking is ‘The Future is Rural’ by Jason Bradford1. (A free download from the Post Carbon Institute can be obtained here – https://www.postcarbon.org/publications/the-future-is-rural/ ). His focus is food production and how this will be affected by the decline in fossil fuels. He thinks that this impact will be so great as to reverse the move to the cities and lead to a smaller-scale, lower-energy world that is, again, rural, as this provides the vital access to land and food without the need for massive supply chains, transport and assorted infrastructure.

Bradford sees a number of problems with renewables that he feels are often glossed over. He outlines these issues here (adapted from Heinberg and Fridley2).

“Solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal generators produce electricity, and we already have an abundance of technologies that rely on electricity. So why should we need to change the ways we use energy? Presumably all that’s necessary is to unplug coal power plants, plug in solar panels and wind turbines, and continue living as we do currently. This is a misleading way of imagining the energy transition for six important reasons.

  1. Intermittency. As we will see in chapter 3, the on-demand way we use electricity now is unsuited to variable renewable supplies from solar and wind. Power engineers designed our current electricity production, distribution, and consumption systems around controllable inputs (hydro, coal, natural gas, and nuclear), but solar and wind are inherently uncontrollable: we cannot force the sun to shine or the wind to blow to suit our desires. It may be possible, to a limited degree, to make intermittent solar or wind energy act like fossil fuels by storing some of the electricity generated for later use, building extra capacity, or redesigning electricity grids. But this costs both money and energy. To avoid enormous overall system costs for capacity redundancy, energy storage, and multiple longdistance grid interconnections, it will be necessary to find more and more ways to shift electricity demand from times of convenience to times of abundant supply, and to significantly reduce overall demand.
  2. The liquid fuels problem. As we will see in chapter 4, electricity doesn’t supply all our current energy usage and is unlikely to do so in a renewable future. Our single largest source of energy is oil, which still fuels nearly all transportation as well as many industrial processes. While there are renewable replacements for some oil products (e.g., biofuels), these are in most cases not direct substitutes (few automobiles, trucks, ships, or airplanes can burn a pure biofuel without costly engine retrofitting) and have other substantial drawbacks and limitations.* Only portions of our transport infrastructure lend themselves easily to electrification—another potential substitution strategy. Thus a renewable future is likely to be characterized by less mobility, and this has significant implications for the entire economy.
  3. Other uses of fossil fuels. Society currently uses the energy from fossil fuels for other essential purposes as well, including the production of high temperatures for making steel and other metals, cement, rubber, ceramics, glass, and other manufactured goods. Fossil fuels also serve as feedstocks for materials (e.g., plastics, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals). As we will see in chapter 5, all of these pose substitution or adaptation quandaries.
  4. Area density of energy collection activities. In the energy transition”, (due to Capacity Factor constraints Note 1) “we will move from sources with a small geographic footprint (e.g., a natural gas well) toward ones with much larger footprints (large wind and solar farms collecting diffuse or ambient sources of energy). As we do, there will be unavoidable costs, inefficiencies, and environmental impacts resulting from the increasing spatial extent of energy collection activities. While the environmental impacts of a wind farm are substantially less than those from drilling for, distributing, and burning natural gas, or from mining, transporting, and burning coal, capturing renewable energy at the scale required to offset all gas and coal energy would nevertheless entail environmental impacts that are far from trivial. Minimizing these costs will entail planning and adaptation.
  5. Location. Sunlight, wind, hydropower, and biomass are more readily available in some places than others. Long-distance transmission entails significant investment costs and energy losses. Moreover, transporting biomass energy resources (e.g., biofuels or wood) reduces the overall energy profitability of their use. This implies that, as the energy transition accelerates, energy production will shift from large, centralized processing and distribution centers (e.g., a 500,000 barrel per day refinery) to distributed and smaller-scale facilities (e.g., a local or regional biofuel factory within a defined collection zone or “shed”), since the same amount of “feedstock” cannot be concentrated in one place. It also implies that population centers may tend to reorganize themselves geographically around available energy sources.
  6. Energy quantity. As we will see in chapter 6, quantities of energy available will also change during the transition. Since the mid-nineteenth century, annual global energy consumption has grown exponentially to over 500 exajoules. Even assuming a massive build-out of solar and wind capacity during the next 35 years, renewables will probably be unable to fully replace the quantity of energy currently provided by fossil fuels, let alone meet projected energy demand growth. This raises profound questions not only about how much energy will be available but also for widespread expectations and assumptions about global economic growth.” *Mikael Höök et al., “Hydrocarbon liquefaction: viability as a peak oil mitigation strategy,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 372, no. 2006 (2014): 20120319, doi:10.1098/rsta.2012.0319. David Murphy, Charles Hall, and Bobby Powers, “New perspectives on the energy return on (energy) investment (EROI) of corn ethanol,” Environment, development and sustainability 13, no. 1 (2011): 179–202.

As we have ignored the problems and illogicalities of rampant growth, and done little to address climate change, so too have our options narrowed, so much so that we now find ourselves ‘in a cleft stick’. Heinberg3 sums up our predicament, even with renewables, as follows:

(Siemens. 2018. Manufacturing a Wind Turbine. Renewable energy also requires energy for materials, manufacture, transmission infrastructure, maintenance, and ultimately, replacement [this is why some analysts call them ‘replaceables’, not ‘renewables’]).
“The end of fossil fuels – even in the best case, with forethought and proactive investment – will result in cascading disruptions to every aspect of our existence. The essence of the problem is this: nearly everything we need to do for the climate problem (including building new low-emissions electrical generation capacity, and electrifying energy usage) requires energy and money. But society is already using all the energy and money it can muster in order to do the things that society wants and needs to do (extract resources, manufacture products, transport people and materials, provide health care and education, and so on). If we take energy and money away from those activities in order to fund a rapid energy transition on an unprecedented scale, then the economy will contract, people will be thrown out of work, and many people will be miserable. On the other hand, if we keep doing all those things at the current scale while also rapidly building a massive alternative infrastructure of solar panels, wind turbines, battery banks, super grids, electric cars and trucks, and synthetic fuel factories, the result will be a big pulse of energy use that will significantly increase carbon emissions over the short term (10 to 20 years), since the great majority of the energy currently available for the project must be derived from fossil fuels.

It takes energy to make solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, and new generations of industrial equipment of all kinds. For a car with an internal combustion engine, 10% of lifetime energy usage occurs in the manufacturing stage. For an electric car, roughly 40% of energy usage occurs in manufacturing, and emissions during this stage are 15% greater than for an ICE car (over the entire lifetime of the e-car, emissions are about half those of the gasoline guzzler). With solar panels, energy inputs and carbon emissions are similarly front-weighted to the manufacturing phase; energy output and emissions reduction (from offsetting other electricity generation) come later. Replacing a very high percentage of our industrial infrastructure and equipment quickly would therefore entail a historically large burst of energy usage and carbon emissions. By undertaking a rapid energy transition, while also maintaining or growing current levels of energy usage for ‘normal’ purposes, we would be defeating our goal of reducing emissions now (even though we would be working toward the goal of reducing emissions later).” But if we took it more slowly, and only tried to replace ageing infrastructure, etc., then “the process would take far too long” and we wouldn’t get anywhere near the required zero emissions by 2050 to avoid + 1.5 or 2 degrees and runaway, self-reinforcing, climate change.

Before examining what Heinberg sees as the only logical response, we will return to Bradford for his predicted outcome of these problems, and that of permaculturalist, David Holmgren, whom he quotes, also.

(Blacklock, W. K. 1872-1924. Bringing Home the Hay. A romantic vision of a simpler, lower-energy world, pre WWI).

“In anthropological terms, as we have less energy available, our society will become less complex, characterized by fewer monetary transactions and an increase in subsistence and informal economies. The cultural implications are profound.32 Progressively less energy from fossil fuels will require greater labor inputs and less reliance on mechanization over time. For a culture that mythologizes as progress the dominant trends of the 20th century, such as urbanization, financialization, and the replacement of labor with capital and machinery, this realization will come as a shock. The process outlined here will collectively be referred to as the Great Simplification, and corresponds to what permaculturalist and futurist David Holmgren calls the Energy Descent scenario: ‘Energy Descent is the erratic but ongoing decline in the material and energy base to support humanity. In this scenario, as fossil fuels are depleted and the impacts of their past use continue (such as climate change), the nature of society will change to reflect many of the basic design principles if not details of pre-industrial societies. This will require a relocalisation of the economy, a re-ruralisation of settlements and reduction in the population that can be sustained in many countries. Novel technologies and cultural patterns may ease the transition but will not prevent the process of energy descent to less complex but more resilient ways to provide for human needs and values. As happened with many past civilisations (including the well documented decline of the Roman Empire), energy descent could occur through a series of precipitous crises that punctuate longer periods of stability’.33

Bradford calls the coming change the Great Simplification, and Holmgren the Energy Descent Scenario3. Heinberg has no particular title for the upcoming change, but arrives at essentially the same conclusion, which he says is inescapable.

“Some folks nurture the happy illusion that we can do it all – continue to grow the economy while also funding the energy transition. But that assumes the problem is only money (if we find a way to pay for it, then the transition can be undertaken with no sacrifice). This illusion can be maintained only by refusing to acknowledge the stubborn fact that all activity, including building alternative energy and carbon capture infrastructure, requires energy.

The only way out of the dilemma arising from energy and emissions cost of the transition is to reduce substantially the amount of energy we are using for ‘normal’ economic purposes – for resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, heating, cooling, and industrial processes – both so that we can use that energy for the transition (building solar panels and electric cars) and so that we won’t have to build as much new infrastructure (since, if our ongoing operational energy usage is smaller, we won’t need as many solar panels and so on).” 4

I don’t think there is any credible, sustainable future other than that outlined by Heinberg, Bradford, Holmgren and others, including Samuel Alexander and co. at The Simplicity Institute (https://simplicityinstitute.org/). Some of this future will be very hard, some of it very good, and some of it is being lived by large numbers of people in less-affluent countries today, although perhaps not in a way that can be defined as sustainable. Provided we transition to it in the not-too-distant future, and not too damagingly, we will have a future within and alongside a splendid and nurturing natural world.

(Cole, T. 1836. The Course of Empire: Destruction. ArtZip. Cole’s fourth painting in a series of five that purports to track the course of civilisations).

 

1 Bradford, J. 2019. The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification. Post Carbon Institute, Corvallis, USA.

2 Heinberg, R., and Fridley, D. 2016. Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for 100% Clean Energy. Island Press, Washington D.C.,USA < http://ourrenewablefuture.org/ >.

3 Holmgren, D. 2018. Feeding Retrosuburbia: from the Backyard to the Bioregion. Holmgren Design, Hepburn, Australia.

4 Heinberg, R. 2021. Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, Canada.

Note 1 The net Capacity Factor is the unitless ratio of actual electrical energy output over a given period of time divided by the theoretical continuous maximum electrical energy output over that period.[1] The theoretical maximum energy output of a given installation is defined as that due to its continuous operation at full nameplate capacity over the relevant period. The capacity factor can be calculated for any electricity producing installation, such as a fuel consuming power plant or one using renewable energy, such as wind or the sun. The average capacity factor can also be defined for any class of such installations, and can be used to compare different types of electricity production. (Source: Capacity factor – Wikipedia ). For example, a typical nuclear power plant has a Capacity Factor of around 90%, thereby allowing it to have a large output built on a relatively small area of land. Meanwhile the Capacity Factor of a typical U.S. windfarm is around 33% (wind power has a theoretical maximum efficiency of ?), and solar (theoretical maximum efficiency: 32%) is around 27% for U.S. solar farms located in states with the highest solar insolation (Source: ‘Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet’, pg. 216).

Estimates of the total practical global wind energy output are as low as 1TW, which is significantly below our current global energy production of 18TW (Source: ‘Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet’, pg. 186). Although it is theoretically possible to provide all 18TW of current energy demand by covering just 0.4% of the Earth’s land area with solar panels, a major impediment is the intermittency of solar due to there being no sun at night and low solar insolation in cloudy conditions (Source: ‘Energy and Human Ambitions’…, pg. 211). The intermittency problem can only be partially ‘solved’ with battery storage because of the problems of Volumetric vs Gravimetric energy density – see Fig. 3 this webpage, from Bradford’s ‘The Future is Rural’.

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