We are invited to take part in the following, and so please would you let me have any thoughts, which I will moderate and pass-on. I am opening-the batting from here with a few bullet-points, posted below the copied message below.
"Hi Chris -
Starting tomorrow The Economist Online Debate Series is starting a two-week long online, Oxford-style debate on solving the world’s energy crisis. Since this topic is highly relevant to you and readers of Energy Balance, we wanted to give you and your readers an early invite to participate and be heard alongside notable experts and debaters in this intellectually stimulating, global conversation.
Would you be interested in supporting the discourse on this topic by posting about this debate and your response to our proposition on your blog? To help out, we’ve included a preview of tomorrow’s opening statement by moderator and Economist correspondent, Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran.
The proposition is: “This house believes that we can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations.” What do you think? Will the reduction of global energy consumption be enough to sustain current fossil fuel reserves? Or should all efforts be directed toward discovering new technologies that broaden the world’s energy portfolio?In his opening statement, Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran details both the Pro and Con arguments. Joseph Romm, Pro expert and Senior Fellow at the Centre for American Progress argues that “the world must deploy staggering amounts of low-carbon energy technology as rapidly as possible.” The Con argument made by Peter Meisen, President of Global Energy Network Institute argues that a “design science revolution is required.” Do you agree? Is it more important to support conservation or innovation? Given that both efforts are currently being explored in parallel, where should the center of gravity lie?"
Energy Balance responds:
There is no either/or answer to this question, since both energy-efficiency and potential new-technologies have a part to play. The issue of providing energy is rather akin to all other kinds or budget, personal or national: i.e. you earn more or spend less in order not to exceed it. Providing anywhere near the amount of energy currently generated from fossil resources, i.e. oil, gas and coal, by alternative means is a challenge of staggering proportions. The most pressing issue is replacing liquid-fuel based transportation by other means, and in relatively short order, which all signs indicate is not possible (or not on that same immense scale), and hence societies will need to relocalise into smaller communities that are far less reliant on extensive transport. The consequences of this, including the deconvolution of cities into smaller volumes, are likely to be profound.
All alternatives so far offered, e.g. biofuels or the putative "hydrogen economy", require massive resources, of land or other materials, such as platinum for fuel cells, beyond what can reasonably be provided. Growing crops for fuel ultimately competes with land for food, while even if the chain of problems of manufacturing, storing and distributing hydrogen could be overcome, there is only enough recoverable platinum per annum to provide around 10% of the world's car fleet within 20 years, all of which points toward the end of personal transport.
Electric vehicles might be a solution, but there are resource pressures there too, in order to make batteries on a vast scale, e.g. for lithium. For both platinum and lithium, while there is plenty in the ground, it is not the volume of the resource but the rate of recovery that is rate-limiting to the implementation of technologies based on them. I note there are around 700 million vehicles on the world's highways, now powered entirely by oil-based fuels. If the supply-demand gap is to be met within 7 years (according to the CEO of Shell, recently), compounded by the arrival of peak-oil, we almost certainly do not have time to find alternatives. Local transport using light-railway and tramways, powered by electricity which can be made from different sources, might prove a useful complement to whatever existing road and rail transport there remains by then.
On this topic, I am puzzled as to the necessity to build a third runway (and fifth and possibly sixth terminals) at Heathrow Airport, "to cope with a tripling of air transport by 2030" when there will by most analyses be a dearth in aviation fuel by then. So, even if there are more planes and more runways etc. to launch them from, what will be put in them by way of fuel?
In order to conserve fuel and ease the supply-demand gap that is predicted any time soon, fuel efficient engines would be very useful, as would all manner of more locally-focussed living schemes that burn less oil overall. Apart from transport, the other major use of energy is in heating buildings. In this case, better insulation is a must. There are very clever designs, e.g. 40% house, passivhaus, which can make huge energy savings, but in a relatively short time, it is debatable how many new dwellings could be built, and so insulating and implementing all kinds of energy efficiency into existing accommodation is a must, e.g. terrace houses in the U.K., which are in principle quite energy-efficient, with only two external walls on average for each.
Growing food more efficiently is important too. Modern agriculture depends on oil and chemical fertilizers, and depends heavily on oil and natural gas, which are in limited supply. Phosphate fertilizer production peaked worldwide in 1988 and so alternative sources must be found, probably by recycling human and animal waste, again via local farms, which will become the principal source of food, rather than large sale operations that require extensive transportation networks to move the food around to where it will be consumed. If the production is done locally much of this energy-drain is eliminated. The potential phosphate-shortage also impacts on growing crops for biofuels, to what amount this might be done.
In short, solving the world's future energy crisis is not a simple matter of either/or, of efficiency vs technology, but an entire replanning of how we all live, and bringing this to fruition rapidly.
Prof. Chris Rhodes.