Access to energy is of foundational importance for societies, but constraints on our abilities to meet societies’ energy requirements are growing. Foremost among them is the pressing challenge of transitioning to a zero-carbon energy system. In this episode of the “Great Unraveling?” series, Richard Heinberg joins Laurie Laybourn-Langton to explore the crucial role of energy in the stability of societies and the importance of the energy transition.
Richard Heinberg is an author and educator who has written extensively on energy issues. He’s Senior Fellow-in-Residence at Post Carbon Institute and author of 13 books, the latest of which is Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for 100% Clean Energy, co-authored with David Fridley.
Access to energy is of foundational importance for societies. But the constraints on our ability to meet society’s energy requirements are growing and foremost among them is the pressing challenge of transitioning to a zero-carbon energy system.
In this episode, we explore the crucial role of energy in the stability of societies and the importance of the energy transition. To do so, I’m joined by Richard Heinberg, author and educator who has written extensively on energy issues. He’s currently a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, and author of 13 books, the latest of which is Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path For One Hundred Percent Clean Energy, co-authored by David Fridley. Richard, welcome.
Good to be with you. Laurie.
Let’s start with a big question. Why is energy such an important issue?
Well, societies are defined by their energy sources. We talk about hunter-gatherer societies, agrarian societies. Our energy sources are, for the last few decades, overwhelmingly fossil fuels, and they really define our food system, the way we work, the way we live, the way we relate to the environment. So, you know, if you don’t understand energy, and our particular energy sources—it’s kind of opaque—it’s hard to really understand much about modern society.
I’m sure this is something that many people watching this will be well-versed in, but can you just quickly go over the main reasons why we need to have this transition away from a carbon-based energy system?
Right. Well, fossil fuels have been an enormous source of energy. They’re 85% of the energy that we use, and they’ve transformed our food system, transportation system, etc., etc. But of course, fossil fuels have two big problems, one of which is burning them releases carbon into the atmosphere and is destabilizing the global climate.
The other is that these are depleting nonrenewable resources. So, you know, we can continue increasing our rate of extraction and combustion for maybe another decade or two or three. But beyond that they’re simply depleting away from us. We have to make other arrangements. Otherwise we won’t have the energy necessary to sustain modern societies.
And we’re often told, daily in the media that on one side, there’s been extraordinary gains in rolling out renewable energy. And on the other side, we are not making the changes that are necessary to avoid increasingly unmanageable climate breakdown. Can you just go into, in your view, some of the main opportunities and challenges that face us as we look forward over the next decade or so?
Well, the opportunities are pretty straightforward. Solar and wind produce electricity. There’s also nuclear power. but, you know, our analysis suggests that that’s not likely to be a major contributor to the energy transition. But all three produce electricity, which is a very high-quality energy carrier. And that’s compared to fossil fuels.
When we produce electricity with fossil fuels, it’s very inefficient. Most of that energy gets wasted along the way. So there’s a big advantage there. And solar and wind are getting cheaper. That’s that’s another opportunity. But there are some challenges and I’d like to mention four in particular.
The first is what might be called the 20% problem. We only use 20% of energy currently in the form of electricity. The rest we use in the form of liquid gaseous and solid fuels for transportation, building heating, and high heat industrial processes, and so on. So transitioning that other 80% is a big deal.
It’s not just a matter of building a lot of solar panels and wind turbines, we have to alter the way the ways that we use energy. Of course, electric cars are an example of how we could do that. But that’s just one of many. And there are two basic pathways that we’ll have to choose between… some combination of the two. One is electrification. Electric cars are an example of that—electrifying more of transportation, manufacturing and so on.
The other is using electricity to produce synthetic fuels. We might use that as a solution, for example, in aviation, because, you know, we’re not going to have battery-powered planes flying across the Pacific Ocean.
Both of those are costly, both of those alternatives—electrifying everything that we’re we’re doing or producing enormous amounts of synthetic fuels. Both of those imply building a lot of new infrastructure beyond just the solar panels and wind turbines. Okay, that’s, that’s number one.
Number two is the intermittency problem. Both solar and wind are intermittent sources of energy. And there are basically three ways of dealing with that. One is of course, energy storage. Everybody knows that we need batteries, and batteries are getting cheaper—there’s a lot of research and so on.
But batteries are really only helpful with diurnal intermittency problems—you know, day and night, one day to the next. You’re not going to store electricity in batteries for seasonal intermittency problems. For that you need something else. Something like source redundancy, which is the second strategy—just building a lot more solar and wind turbines than you’re actually going to need at any one time, and then connecting them all with a super grid so that if the sun isn’t shining here, well, maybe the wind is blowing over there. Okay, but both the the super grid and the source redundancy add to the cost of the system as a whole.
The third strategy is demand management, just not using electricity or energy, when it isn’t readily available. So all three of these strategies for dealing with intermittency have costs and tradeoffs associated with them. So that was number two.
Challenge number three is the energy cost of the transition, you know, building all of this stuff—again, not just wind turbines and solar panels, but also new infrastructure for using energy, for storing energy, for transmitting energy over longer distances. All of this building, all of that takes energy. And right now, as I said earlier, 85% of our energy is coming from fossil fuels. So realistically, most of the energy that we’re going to be using, at least in the early stages of the energy transition for the transition itself is going to be fossil fuel energy.
So there’s a problem there. And the only way to solve that problem is the final challenge. To solve that problem and to deal with with the other challenges that we’ve been talking about, it really makes sense to aim for a lower scale of energy usage overall, and significantly lower in currently wealthy industrial nations like the United States and most of the European nations.
But the problem is, we don’t know how to do that. We’ve been planning for decades only for one thing, and that’s growth. And economic growth means energy growth. There’s a very close correlation. So we don’t know how to plan to do the one thing that might enable us to actually accomplish the rest of the energy transition. So these are four big challenges.
And if we look at the position, we’re in now, with this continued interplay of headlines that say we are making progress on some of them and others that are warning that we’re not making progress at all. If we look out into a future that is becoming more climate-changed, how do you think these challenges and our efforts to overcome them will play out in the coming years, and as we look over the next decade, and beyond?
Realistically, I think it’s extremely unlikely that we’re going to build a substantial amount of either renewable—solar, and wind—or nuclear infrastructure to enable us to continue using energy at the rates that we have been doing. That has enormous implications. And since we’re not planning for a future with lower energy usage, that means that we’re going to be hit increasingly by two things that we’re not prepared for, one of which is climate change itself. But the other is energy scarcity and all the symptoms of energy scarcity.
Frankly, we’re likely, I think, to see those symptoms as unique problems, rather than seeing their connection with the meta-problem of energy scarcity, we’ll find that we have problems in our food system, we’ll find that we have more problems with affordability of housing, and all sorts of things. And we’ll be looking for solutions for all of those problems without understanding that we just created a way of life that was fundamentally unsustainable, and we failed to plan for what comes next.
Richard, thank you very much for talking with us today and for giving your amazing answers. Thank you.
Thank you, Laurie.