Sunday , September 19 2021
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Are you still buying this?

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It is nearly a decade since David MacKay delivered that TED talk.  MacKay has since, sadly, passed away. The bright green giant that he attempted to slay has, unfortunately, gone from strength to strength…

“… whichever of those renewables you pick, the message is, whatever mix of those renewables you’re using, if you want to power the UK on them, you’re going to need to cover something like 20 percent or 25 percent of the country with those renewables. I’m not saying that’s a bad idea; we just need to understand the numbers. I’m absolutely not anti-renewables. I love renewables. But I’m also pro-arithmetic…

“All renewables, much as I love them, are diffuse. They all have a small power per unit area, and we have to live with that fact. And that means, if you do want renewables to make a substantial difference for a country like the United Kingdom on the scale of today’s consumption, you need to be imagining renewable facilities that are country-sized.”

Various analogies were made at the time to describe the enormity of the task of somehow ending humanity’s dependence upon fossil fuels.  “It would be like sending people to the moon,” said many.  “It will be like the Manhattan Project,” said others.  “No, it will be like fighting World War Two,” said a few.  But very few stopped to consider what they were actually describing.  Two years ago, Roger Pielke at Forbes made a stab at what might be involved using data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy:

“In 2018 the world consumed 11,743 mtoe [mega tonnes of oil equivalent] in the form of coal, natural gas and petroleum. The combustion of these fossil fuels resulted in 33.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. In order for those emissions to reach net-zero, we will have to replace about 12,000 mtoe of energy consumption expected for 2019…

“To achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions globally by 2050 thus requires the deployment of >1 mtoe of carbon-free energy consumption (~12,000 mtoe/11,051 days) every day, starting tomorrow and continuing for the next 30+ years. Achieving net-zero also requires the corresponding equivalent decommissioning of more than 1 mtoe of energy consumption from fossil fuels every single day…

“So the math here is simple: to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the world would need to deploy 3 Turkey Point nuclear plants worth of carbon-free energy every two days, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050. At the same time, a Turkey Point nuclear plant worth of fossil fuels would need to be decommissioned every day, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.

“I’ve found that some people don’t like the use of a nuclear power plant as a measuring stick. So we can substitute wind energy as a measuring stick. Net-zero carbon dioxide by 2050 would require the deployment of ~1500 wind turbines (2.5 MW) over ~300 square miles, every day starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050…”

We may quibble with the details here; but this is to miss the core of what is being said here.  Even the energy and resources required to fight the Second World War constitute a tiny fraction of what would be required to maintain our current way of life while switching from fossil fuels back to wind, solar and bio-fuels.  In any case, we already used the resources and energy to power the massive increase in human population and economic activity in the decades since the war.  As professor of engineering, Tad Patzek explains:

“To compare the WWII industrial effort with the global dislocation necessary to ameliorate some of the effects of climate change is surprisingly naïve… This comparison also neglects to account for the human population that has almost quadrupled between the 1940s and now, and the resource consumption that has increased almost 10-fold.  The world today cannot grow its industrial production the way we did during WWII.  There is simply not enough of the planet Earth left to be devoured.”

Even the relatively small-scale elements of the proposed transition turn out to be beyond us.  The UK is now a world-leader in wind… and that’s not just the hot air that comes out of our politicians.  Sitting in the path of the Gulf Stream in the North East Atlantic, the British Isles are ideally placed to capture wind energy which has already been partially concentrated by the jet stream.  But capturing the energy is but one step in the process.  At the other end is the proposed conversion of millions of homes from gas to electricity, or the conversion of around 30 million cars from petroleum to batteries.  And the new infrastructure required to allow the transition turn out to be on a similar scale to that calculated by Roger Pielke.

According to Roger Brown at The Energyst, the UK is already set to miss its pledge to ban new petroleum-powered cars by the end of the decade:

“EVs are for ‘fleets not families’ suggests the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, warning 2030 targets could be in jeopardy. The SMMT casts doubt on the ambition to have most transport electric by 2030 when EV retail incentives are cut and daily charge points installation rates are 6% of the required 700 [per] day.”

Installing 700 charging stations a day is daunting enough; but consider that the UK’s ageing Grid infrastructure will also have to be upgraded to meet the extra demand.  And, of course, that additional demand will massively amplify the intermittency problems which have already caused blackouts across a large part of the country; and for which few viable storage solutions are available.  There are only so many uninhabited Scottish and Welsh valleys that can be flooded for pumped hydro.

If the problem was “British warming,” we might – just – be able to succeed.  The problem though, is Global warming; and there are simply not enough mineral reserves left to provide the materials to build out the fantasy of a bright green hi-tech future.  Simon Michaux from the Finnish Geological Survey sets out the shortages that the EU would need to overcome if its energy transition is to work.  A group of British scientists at the Natural History Museum raised similar concerns two years ago:

“To replace all UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles (not including the LGV and HGV fleets), assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries, would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes copper. This represents, just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry…

“There are serious implications for the electrical power generation in the UK needed to recharge these vehicles. Using figures published for current EVs (Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe), driving 252.5 billion miles uses at least 63 TWh of power. This will demand a 20% increase in UK generated electricity.

“Challenges of using ‘green energy’ to power electric cars: If wind farms are chosen to generate the power for the projected two billion cars at UK average usage, this requires the equivalent of a further years’ worth of total global copper supply and 10 years’ worth of global neodymium and dysprosium production to build the windfarms.

“Solar power is also problematic – it is also resource hungry; all the photovoltaic systems currently on the market are reliant on one or more raw materials classed as ‘critical’ or ‘near critical’ by the EU and/or US Department of Energy (high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium) because of their natural scarcity or their recovery as minor-by-products of other commodities. With a capacity factor of only ~10%, the UK would require ~72GW of photovoltaic input to fuel the EV fleet; over five times the current installed capacity. If CdTe-type photovoltaic power is used, that would consume over thirty years of current annual tellurium supply.

“Both these wind turbine and solar generation options for the added electrical power generation capacity have substantial demands for steel, aluminium, cement and glass.”

Material shortages alone mean that the proposed bright green energy transition is not going to happen; although declining fossil fuel reserves do make some kind of return to an economy powered by renewable energy inevitable.  But an even more fundamental problem can be witnessed in events playing out along the east coast of the USA today.  It is one thing for politicians to talk about a theoretical end to using petroleum, it is something quite different when an – albeit artificial – shortage of petrol and diesel materialises in an economy whose life blood is petroleum.  And therein is one of our greatest economic weaknesses.  European drivers will enjoy a sense of schadenfreude watching their American cousins punch each other out over petrol prices of $3.00 (£2.14) per gallon. We pay almost that for a litre.  But in reality, all of us are paying far, far less for fuel than the true value it provides to us.  The trouble is that we only remember just how much value we enjoy from fossil fuels when the supply is interrupted.

Far from weaning ourselves off oil, gas and coal, all we have done with solar, wind and biofuel energy is to add it to an already over-consumptive mix:

Meanwhile, our dependence upon fossil fuels has continued to grow.  Indeed, if we had merely ceased growing our consumption of fossil fuels back in 2015, we would have saved more energy than all the energy currently generated from renewables.  And cutting fossil fuel consumption is only one half of the bright green “net zero” myth.

The Paris Agreement does not simply require that we cease using fossil fuels, it also anticipates yet-to-be-invented technologies which will suck existing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.  As James Dyke, Robert Watson and Wolfgang Knorr at The Conversation explain, something akin to the Jevons Parodox is built in:

“Collectively we three authors of this article must have spent more than 80 years thinking about climate change. Why has it taken us so long to speak out about the obvious dangers of the concept of net zero? In our defence, the premise of net zero is deceptively simple – and we admit that it deceived us.

“The threats of climate change are the direct result of there being too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So it follows that we must stop emitting more and even remove some of it. This idea is central to the world’s current plan to avoid catastrophe. In fact, there are many suggestions as to how to actually do this, from mass tree planting, to high tech direct air capture devices that suck out carbon dioxide from the air…

“This is a great idea, in principle. Unfortunately, in practice it helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now.

“We have arrived at the painful realisation that the idea of net zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier ‘burn now, pay later’ approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar. It has also hastened the destruction of the natural world by increasing deforestation today, and greatly increases the risk of further devastation in the future.”

And actually, technological carbon reduction turns out not to be such a great idea either.  As I explained back in 2018:

“As with a raft of other faux-green technologies that were hawked around social media, like solar roadways, waterseers and hyperloops, the machine that can suck carbon dioxide out of the air will never fulfill its promise.

“To understand why, consider that the atmosphere is very big – roughly 5.5 quadrillion tons of gas.  But the carbon dioxide content is very small – just over 405 parts per million.  And humans release around 40 billion tons of the stuff every year.  So any machine that is going to attempt the task – even assuming 100 percent efficiency – would need to hoover up 2,470 tons of atmosphere to capture just 1 ton of carbon dioxide; and it would have to do this roughly a thousand times a second to keep up with our ongoing emissions.”

Even if such a machine could be invented, without fossil fuels there would not be enough energy to power it.  Rather than providing a realistic solution to our current predicament, the promise of carbon removal technologies play the same role as Valium in reducing our anxieties as the collapse of our life support systems draws ever nearer.

In any case, as the current queues at US filling stations demonstrate, only an imbecile would take seriously any political pledge to give up oil.  A bit of greenwashing may make for good soundbites and will help pacify the activist base.  But the reality across the developed world – and especially in the USA – is that no more oil equals no more civilisation.

Nor is the USA the only candidate for reneging on its climate change pledges.  Where the USA grew rich on oil, India and – especially – China have built themselves to modernity using the last of the world’s coal reserves:

They have been permitted to do so on the grounds that their historical per capita consumption is far lower than the more developed economies of Europe and North America have been.  While we in the west must cease fossil fuel consumption immediately, they may continue to allow their economies to develop.  The environment though, cares not about per capita consumption; and the reality is that China has burned more coal in the last two decades than the UK has burned in its entire history.  And just as it is reasonable to ask whether the USA – or the UK for that matter – will ever voluntarily stop burning oil, only a fool would take at face value the promise that the country which now burns more than 50 percent of the world’s coal is going to voluntary give it up when the time comes.

Running an economy entirely on renewable energy is easy.  Humans had been doing it for millennia prior to the 1750s.  Running this highly complex industrial economy on renewables on the other hand, is simply impossible.  Nevertheless, without some yet-to-be-discovered useable energy-dense fuel source to replace oil, gas and coal, we will have to more or less rapidly simplify and shrink our economy to something more akin to that of the early nineteenth century.  But, of course, nobody is volunteering to do this in a managed way.  And so, one of these days, maybe next year, maybe a couple of decades from now, those US gas queues are going to be the real thing; not an artificial shortage, but the result of permanently declining supply.  And when that happens, industrial civilisation will come to an end.

As you made it to the end…

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