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The Nation’s Oldest Weekly Channels PCI

August 6, 2015

Yesterday The Nation published a must-read article on how the drop in oil prices is shaking the foundation of the so-called “shale revolution” and how renewable energy is poised to take off.

Right now, our fossil-fueled energy path has us on a roller-coaster ride and we are plunging, white knuckled. Production in the United States from the exploitation of shale oil (or tight oil), which accounts for 45 percent of the country’s oil production, will take a hit if prices continue to remain well below the $100 mark. Tens of thousands of jobs have already been cut, and some debt-laden companies may go belly up.

This is the narrative that has been seizing headlines, but it’s not the whole story of what’s going on in our energy economy. While shales were booming and then busting, solar and wind have been surging. Renewables have been relegated to the sidelines of our energy priorities, a small blip in our electric generating capacity each year, but that is changing. How fast it happens could be enough to rock the boat in a major way.

The article resonated with us at PCI deeply, and not just because it feature interviews with two of our fellows, David Hughes and David Fridley). The central messages in the article are 1) that fossil fuels (and particularly shale gas and tight oil) are a dead end road and 2) that, while we’re headed for a future powered largely by renewable energy, the renewable future will require a major shift in how we live.

These two messages have been central to Post Carbon Institute’s work over the last few years. Since 2011, PCI has been the leading voice challenging mainstream hype of the abundance of shale gas and oil. This year we are embarking on one of our most ambitious projects ever—exploring the challenges and opportunities of the renewable energy transition and what a 100% renewable energy future might actually look like. And so it’s rewarding to see America’s oldest weekly magazine exploring both of these topics.

Fridley, the scientist from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has also called for a deeper conversation on what a path to renewables would look like. Most of the focus has been on how to use renewables to fill our electricity needs, but this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the energy we use in our highly industrialized lives.

Globally, electricity accounts for only about 20 percent of our final energy consumption, says Fridley, and even if we hit 50 percent renewables for electricity, we still have only addressed about 10 percent of how much energy the world consumes.

“Yes, we can have a renewable world, but it’s not really going to look like the world we have today,” says Fridley. “It could be a better world to live in, it could be a much worse world to live in, depending on many of the decisions we make in the next decade or two.”

But enough feather-capping. We want to hear from you:

Do you think we’re on the cusp of a renewable energy revolution or will we burn every last hydrocarbon we can get our hands on? What will the energy transition look like? Can we keep growing the economy while switching to renewable energy sources? Will the transition to renewable energy solve all of our economic and environmental problems?

Please tell us what you think in the comments below!

30 Comments, RSS

  • Renewable energies, solar and wind, are highly dependent on technologies that only fossil fuels can support. I don’t see much of a renewable future. I believe that the only path forward for mankind is a drastic reduction in our numbers. If pollution and abrupt climate change don’t make the Earth uninhabitable for Home Sapiens and most other vertebrate species, the rapid decline of abundant and cheap fossil energy will certainly depopulate the planet in this century.

  • I find it curious that the only way “we” know how to talk about these issues (energy/economy/society/the “human project”) is AT SCALE. It is a most salient though tragic feature of modernity that we are blinkered in this way. Solutions (whatever they are) will not be found in mass systems of deployment “at scale”. We are approaching a suite of limits that are telling us we need smaller orders of organization; that we need to live where we find ourselves – that is, in a surrounding geography and habitat. All that scale thinking is what got us in to this trouble. We are like bugs in amber, so encased in a given way of living and thinking and perceiving that we actually tacitly identify as members of some abstract, amorphous superorganism. Of course we do: the means and instruments of technological modernity have essentially made our lives an “out of body” experience!

  • Republican Debate – Not once did I hear the word climate from any of these wanna bees or Fox News
    Climate is the foremost problem of America and the world
    These guys, conspired against our health and our survival in not discussing climate. This fact alone should disqualify them all.

  • I read the article as significantly focusing on the demand side of fossil fuels and pointing out the limits of renewables based on the incumbency of fossils.

    The point is, even with the gradual changing of the guard and the leveling of the playing field, fossils still control the day and will for as far as we can see, particularly world wide where it matters.

    The American Public does not perceive or believe that we have a climate crisis and climate emergency. Nor does the Nation in its article. Nonetheless, Naomi Klein, http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-08-05/naomi-klein-obama-makes-strides-toward-reducing-coal-but-we-still-have-a-long-way-to-go

    and James Hansen http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/07/20/sea_level_study_james_hansen_issues_dire_climate_warning.html

    are just two of the best who do explain we are in an emergency and we must move now.

    Therefore, we have partnered with Climate Mobilization, http://www.theclimatemobilization.org/

    and have initiated the Emergency Climate Mobilization Coalition Fund. We need zero carbon within ten years to have a good chance to have a decent future for all of us. We put out time and money where the data leads us and where the future is calling us all to radical transformation.

  • I have followed you from about the begining and continue to support your work — among the few I can support as enco-evolutionist.

  • entropicjournaldotblogspot

    Leadership in these United States flows from the barrel of an oil well, from fractures in shale gas beds, from coal seams which once slumbered beneath forested mountaintops. It flows into chauffeured limousines and private jets and motorized entourages of supporters. It flows into the marble halls and darkly-paneled chambers which lie beyond.

    It infuses candidates and enflames their hunger, not merely for higher office, but for perpetual increases in horsepower to accelerate them there. In their imagiNation, any decrease would be death.

    Most of all this power fuels the amplification of Message, to mega-wattages which rise above the clamor and penetrates the consciousness of the already-overwhelmed masses.

    Thus does Combustion itself become Message, and Man’s purpose to unleash it. Carbon is Destiny.

  • All the human-made things in our world have an industrial
    history. Behind the computer, the T-shirt, the vacuum cleaner is an industrial infrastructure fired by energy (fossil fuels mainly). Each component of our car or refrigerator has an industrial history. Mainly unseen and out of mind, this global industrial infrastructure
    touches every aspect of our lives. It pervades our daily living from the articles it produces, to its effect on the economy and employment, as well as its effects on the environment.

    Solar and wind energy collecting devices also have an industrial history. It is important to understand the industrial infrastructure and the environmental results for the components of the solar energy collecting devices so we don’t designate them with false labels such as green, renewable or sustainable.

    This is an essay challenging ‘business as usual’. If we teach people that these solar devices are the future of energy without teaching the whole system, we mislead, misinform and create false hopes and beliefs.

    I have provided both charts and videos for the solar cells, modules, aluminum from ore, aluminum from recycling, aluminum extrusion, inverters, batteries and copper.

    Please note each piece of machinery you see in each of the
    videos has its own industrial interconnection and history.

    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2015/04/solar-devices-industrial-infrastructure.html

  • Electrical constraint and inequality

    Solar and wind energy collecting devices are extensions of the fossil fuel supply system and the global industrial infrastructure. These devices will not be made without these inputs unless someone has a magic wand. (see: http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2015/04/solar-devices-industrial-infrastructure.html) I am proposing that solar and wind energy collecting devices are business as usual, if we do not impose constraints on all energy and other natural resource use.

    In addition, without constraints on electrical usage (toys and tools) then the gross energy inequality globally will continue with solar and wind energy underwriting it. Without constraints on energy use solar and wind devices and their auxiliary accessories are elitist equipment of the entitled.

    This opens two critical questions of the energy/electricity that we are requiring.
    How do we bring more equitable distribution of energy resources? Is this imbalance and the consequent strife our destiny and our demise?

    What do we need the energy for? This must be one of the mantras for survival now and tomorrow. Imagine beginning at the earth resources –the mine and the well- and the subsequent flow of these products. This creates a tremendous picture in motion of “energy” and resources flowing around the world. It is a Catch 22; we can’t live with it and can’t live presently without it.

    I took the table from this site:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_electricity_consumption

    I copied it to an Excel spread sheet. I rank ordered the least energy use to the
    most and then did an accumulation of population from least energy use to
    most. I could then look at what 50% or
    80% of the world’s population used compared to the US of A.

    Caveat: these figures are approximate however, realistic.

    Caveat: These per capita figures are misleading because the wealthy
    get the “lion’s share.”

    See more at: http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2015/07/electrical-constraint-and-inequality.html

  • We behave like rats in a grain elevator, unable to imagine a future without an overabundance. (Or, if you like, a spoiled brat that hurries to go through a million dollar inhertance as fast as he can).
    This life style has never been realistic or sustainable. Nature itself provides a model of how to manage our affairs (and energy) more successfully. That model is centered on the commons (as opposed to ownership) and is built on autonomous local collaborations between organisms (e.g. tree roots and fungi; flowers and pollinatiors; microorganisms in our gut and ourselves, etc.) It does not waste. It uses the current supply of solar energy. It manages an abundance rather than a scarcity — there is enough to go around.

    Conspicuous by their absence in nature are money, markets, dedicated managers and corporations. Hierarchies are very much curtailed in nature; nature’s hierarchs (like alpha males) certainly do not call the overall shots beyond their own pride or hunting party.

    Much to learn and unlearn, but entirely possible to emulate for a better, no growth quality of life. (Nature’s growth is confined to the birth-growth-death-rebirth cycle)

  • Well, a prolonged drop in the price of oil will end exploration and development of the remaining oil resources with the most exotic and expensive plays being shutdown first. A deflationary, low-to-no-growth economy has already reduced the demand for oil, but there is still a large world-wide need for oil to sustain the fabric of industrial civilization. Oil remains the life-blood of industrial civilization. By 2030 world oil production could be as low as 30M barrels per day or less than half of what it is today. Mr. Fridley is absolutely right to point out that a post-oil world could be radically different good or radically different bad. However, it seems unlikely that the vast majority of people will voluntarily choose to give up their way of life and status to embrace a way of life that requires radically lower levels of energy use and natural resource consumption with substantially more people working directly in agriculture. The level of human misery will need to reach a high level before many people will realize just how desperate the situation is, and by then it will be too late to change course as industrial civilization “hits the wall” and collapses. The social and physical complexity of industrial civilization cannot be operated at its present scale by using alternative sources of energy. The net energy values of most of these alternative sources of energy are quite low, but they maybe just high enough to sustain some level of industrial infrastructure, but nothing like we have today. We are in more trouble than we can possibly imagine.

  • Working in city government, I believe we need more good speakers on this topic to be available to speak to chambers of commerce and city planning/zoning commissions so that we can have outsiders with experience and knowledge to convince those who are in charge of directing staff, because from the inside it’s particularly difficult. Does Post Carbon provide speakers for this purpose or could it? Or a webinar series focused for governments?

    Sample outline: background, current situation, need for local changes NOW. Thanks!

  • Q) Do
    you think we’re on the cusp of a renewable energy revolution or will we burn
    every last hydrocarbon we can get our hands on?
    A) On the Cusp…. but we will see if it is in time.

    Q) What will the energy transition
    look like?
    A) Spotty – as the informed transition rapidly – superinsulating and sealing their homes and adding solar panels on their roofs to power their plug in cars. Others will be left behind and suffer the ravages of pricing on fossil fuels.

    Q) Can we keep growing the economy while switching to renewable
    energy sources?
    A) Smart Growth means turning to growing the renewables and growing the energy conservation measures… this will (as it matures) yield to Smart de-growth. A period

    Q) Will the transition to renewable energy solve all of our
    economic and environmental problems?
    A) No

  • Reading the 4th and 5th IPCC reports it can be seen how the 2013 document was substantially “beefed up” as far as research/analysis is concerned. Of the RCP trajectories provided, (2.6,4.5, 6.0, 8,5) only 1 (2.6) provided what those who read this page would describe as a “half decent attempt” trajectory, peaking emissions in 2025. However RCP 8.5 is the trajectory we are on now, high emissions. This provides Prof Kevin Anderson with his major argument that the 10% annual reductions is “not conducive to a growth economy”. He would argue that under the term “equity” Non Annex 1 countries are entitled to whatever remaining carbon budget exists.
    Christiana Figueres closed the “Our Common Future” heralding “deep and steep” emissions reductions AFTER 2050.
    Reading the IEA Future Trends report dealing with the expansion of CCS we see how and why this is possible, for 2 main reasons.
    1/ It allows the “carbon budget to be extended indefinitely”
    2/ It converts high emissions fuels to zero emissions.
    The only emissions reductions pathways advocated by IPCC/UNFCCC (2.6 and 4.5) BOTH rely entirely on Carbon Capture and Storage/Negative Emissions Technology as the reason why a safe climate is achievable.
    The IEA report is informative as it gives a roadmap for the technology where, by 2050, a CCS industry has been developed that will sequester 7 Ggtns of liquid carbon. This is twice the size of the existing GLOBAL petroleum industry.
    The ability to maintain the consumption status quo is apparently the biggest factor, I see no change to existing energy policy and a complete lack of understanding what this subterranean stupidity of fracking and CCS will eventually do to the ground on which we stand/

  • Do you think we’re on the cusp of a renewable energy revolution or will we burn every last hydrocarbon we can get our hands on?

    Neither. We are too deep into the “energy trap” to build out enough renewable energy infrastructure to replace the functionality of our current energy system. Economic collapse, from the effects of continuous recession on global financial markets, will occur before we burn though all our hydrocarbons.

    What will the energy transition look like?

    The energy transition will come at the end of economic collapse. It will involve a few daily chunks of wood per capita and a lot fewer people doing the wood gathering.

    Can we keep growing the economy while switching to renewable energy sources?

    No, nor should we. We should be preparing for rapid and uncontrolled de-growth.

    Will the transition to renewable energy solve all of our economic and environmental problems?

    Not for a long time. Even our eventual return to a paleolithic energy system will not rid the world of legacy environmental problems. Global warming and radioactive debris last for many centuries.

  • “But as long as fossil fuels remain cheap (ignoring externalities), and energy companies reap big profits from them, we will keep drilling and mining and burning—global catastrophe be damned.” Passing mention of the market failure creating “cheap” fossil fuels. Without a price on carbon emissions, exploitation will continue. Put a price on carbon and the markets will boost rather than hinder clean energy deployment. See http://climatecolab.org/web/guest/plans/-/plans/contestId/1301419/planId/2802

  • So called “green renewables” are just another way of making a PROFIT at the end of the oil age.

    These devices are just as dependent upon fossil resources as you truck or SUV.

    OIL is used in their manufacture, to mine the raw materials, to provide raw materials that are produced from OIL & their weak, intermittent energy production cannot power our civilization & they most certainly cannot replace those fossil resources.
    Germany found that out the hard way after investing billions of dollars on solar & wind energy, too weak, too intermittent, not reliable to provide enough energy to justify the expense..
    GROWTH must & will STOP! we live on a PLANET, it’s FINITE, no resource can support endless growth.

    Sure you can power you home & recharge your electric car if you have the $$$$$$$, a home, enough sunlight & wind for a while, but once affordable oil is gone, your expensive “green renewable” system is running on borrowed time because without OIL, you will not be able to repair, replace or maintain those systems.
    Poor people & the landless cannot afford such systems & anyhow, they are but TEMPORARY.

    Because we are so dam overpopulated, it’s too late to reduce our excessive numbers before our population collapses either from it’s sheer mass overwhelming our agriculture, sewage, electric, water & health care systems or climate change will collapse our agricultural system or from declining oil causing the collapse of our civilization & it’s excessive human population.

    In other words we will collapse, there is now no way to prevent this because we wasted the time the green revolution gave us by not stopping population growth but instead FEEDING THAT GROWTH!

    We should have named ourselves “homo monumentally stupid”.

  • Thank you for your link! I have been trying for a while now to convince people who are pushing solar cells & wind turbines as our energy future just don’t understand the embedded energy in those devices, energy & raw material that can only be provided by OIL .
    As you know, huge amounts of energy is used to provide the raw material used in the energy intensive manufacturing process, the energy used for the final manufacturing stage is what is used to calculate the cost of those systems & the peddlers of those systems continue to insist that their products can be manufactured using just renewables – NOT!

    There is no free energy, there will be no “green renewable” energy future, we will be back to breaking up stones to make tools because all the easy iron ores are gone but only IF we survive climate change & the onrushing population collapse.

    I’m posting your link on my FB page & everywhere else energy is discussed.

  • we live on a finite planet with finite resources, so supply side “solutions” will never be able to meet the demands of infinite growth. the only solution is far fewer people, all using much, much less. i do not see many choosing to live a low carbon life, so that necessity will be forced upon us… and i do not think that will be pretty… so enjoy today, because this will not end well.

  • Aloha Joe,

    I think you are exactly right. Here in Hawaii the Polynesians lived for nearly a millennium, into the 18th century, with Stone Age technology and without a written language. Yet they had a rich culture and could navigate the Pacific Ocean by the stars.

    The Hawaiians knew more about living in balance here than the British and Americans have discovered. I vote for us all going indigenous.

    IslandBreath

  • I don’t know if we will transition fast enough, of course, but I don’t think we will dig up all the remaining carbon, for economic reasons. The comparative economic cost of carbon combustion versus electricity depends on efficiencies of scale at every stage of the supply chain, from extraction to refinery to distribution (for the fuel) and design, manufacture, distribution and repair of combustion device (cars, tractors, etc etc.) As renewables cost and scale improve, carbon demand drops (already happening), squeezing out marginally profitable competitors at each level, impairing the efficiencies of scale and driving relative cost up even more. Public acceptance is already shifting. It is amazing how fast the narrative has begun shifting in the past 6-12 months.

  • The transition away from fossil carbon is going to be very difficult, we are totally wedded to the damn stuff. One possible pathway will be to encourage down-sizing of expectations, in particular on the sizes of vehicles. We NEED only 50cc per adult passenger, tops, anything more is comfort, convenience and/or vanity. Of course that is going to sell like a brick balloon, but so will the consequences of unfettered release of CO2. It would require major rethinks of a lot of our lives: road speeds will have to drop, the shape of cities, expectations of commuting distances, even how or why we move produce around. The ramifications are enormous….but that’s what’s inevitable one way or another anyway.

  • Food has a huge carbon footprint, and waste disposal too. The largest single point of electrical consumption in our village (of about a thousand people) is the sewer plant, followed by the school and the health center. We have a hundred fifty year old dam that could power all three except that it would raise the 200 year flood level by a few inches, and flood mitigation prices the construction beyond our means. In VT about a third of a household’s energy use is for hot water. About 80% of that can be replaced fairly cheaply with solar hot water panels but they have a lot of copper, aluminum, and glass. Transportation and winter heating are about equal and make up probably 25% of the household total each, and the remainder is the embedded carbon in goods and food consumed. Add a few “vacations” or business travel and that will log a lot of “non-household” carbon in jet fuel (I don’t travel). But the rule of 72 about the doubling time at a given percentage… If our “economy” can only be sustained with a 2.5% growth then everything has to double every 28 years. That is population… We can not live on a planet with about 35 billion people after the next 2 doubling cycles (54 years). And it isn’t just the swarming masses in the third world. A family of four in the US uses as much as a hypothetical family of 80 in the poorest places in the third world. We need to create an economy that will work at negative growth… bankers be damned.

  • It is my understanding that a typical PV system has a carbon footprint equal to about 2 1/2 years of its total production capacity. So in the first three years the fossil inputs will have been returned and for the remainder of its useful life (perhaps 30 years) the carbon footprint is zero. At our house we have “pole mounted” arrays which have about two yards of concrete per pole (two poles). Concrete has an enormous carbon footprint so I expect that our system is not “typical”. But the cost of the concrete must include the cost of the fuel used to make it, and at the rate we paid, it would add not more than a couple more years to getting to zero. The system has been running for more than 5 years, and supplies more electricity than we use in the house. Our recently purchased PHEV sucks up enough that we now get a utility bill a couple months of the year, but buy much less gasoline. I believe that a post carbon world will not be “stone age” (only a tiny fraction of the world’s population has the skill necessary to survive in a stone age. But we will not be able to feed an ever expanding population. We can drive our cars and play with our computers until we starve to death. The oceans are almost fish depleted, the topsoil is eroding at a few inches a year from over-production, and the water table is dropping almost everywhere. Advanced technology can keep us comfortable and entertained but it will not feed us. The “green revolution” can no longer produce as much food per acre per year as a farmer could produce before it. Soil does not replenish as fast as it is being consumed. Just how do jellyfish and seaweed taste?

  • Despite all of the analysis by PCI, there are still many readers who cling to the notion that renewables can power an industrial civilisation. I find that hard to believe. In my opinion, we need to rethink our entire way of life before pressing for a renewables revolution. It’s not just about fossil fuels (though they underpin renewables, as others have said) but about our procurement of increasing volumes of resources of all kinds, to the detriment of the rest of nature (and ultimately to the detriment of our future). It can only last for so long, since it is not sustainable.

    However, taking a narrow view, I don’t see renewables making much of a dent in fossil fuel use, while it remains cheap. When demand again outstrips supply (probably at a much lower level), costs will shoot up and renewables will also become very expensive. Still, Russia is trying to get as much of the Arctic as it can (to exploit the resources) and most countries have policies to encourage fossil fuel exploration, despite noises about climate change. So I don’t see a renewables revolution remotely on the horizon.

  • Sad to say here in the UK our government is going ahead with supporting fracking in every way possible while cutting subsidies to renewable energy and improving energy efficiency in homes. I am with Ecotricity which means my energy comes from 100% renewable but I have a long way to go to make my 1820’s house more energy efficient. Why oh why do those in power only think of the next 5 years while they are in power.

  • I have written a book which includes discussion of this subject, Rail and the City: Shrinking Our Carbon Footprint while Reimagining Urban Space, MIT Press, 2014, esp. Preface and Chapter 7.

  • I have recently seen an interview with Dr. Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at Cambridge. (Youtube, “We Are Running Out of Time”, I want to strongly urge people of all disciplines to see it).
    What Wadhams has to say suggests that unless alongside sustainable technology development we have a much more urgent project to remove CO2 from the almosphere, and contain both Arctic and global methane emissions, emissions reduction can’t save us.
    I’m new here. Does anyone want to see the half hour interview and comment?

  • I would like to see science/technology focus its attention on the multitude of small ways to generate small amounts of electricity. “Bigness” is expensive and keeps corporations in control. Small can be beautiful.

  • As the population rises, so the renewable target to achieve enough energy to avoid wars and strife becomes higher and higher.

  • “Can we keep growing the economy while switching to renewable energy sources?” NO! With or without whatever source of energy we cannot keep the economy growing period.