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Energy: Thriving On Five Percent?

Energy: Thriving On Five Percent?.

March 1, 2014

In Sharing Energy In The City, EDF and the the French National Research Agency (ANR) have challenged designers to rethink the production, harvesting, distribution, use, exchange and consumption of energy in our everyday life. They asked me to submit this text as fuel for the discussion.

3D Electric powerlines over sunrise

The modern city has been shaped by the availability of cheap oil and resources, and plentiful credit. Massive resource and energy flows have been used to build skyscrapers, heat and cool buildings, move and treat water, feed people, and move them and their goods around.

This expansion of cities involved the stupendous use of energy. Tom Murphy, a physics professor, calculates that  U.S. energy use since 1650, including wood, biomass, fossil fuels, hydro, nuclear, etc, has grown at a steady 2.9 percent. Those 360 years of more-or-less steady growth help explain why most governments and industries assume that this growth trend will continue as it has for centuries.

But will it? 10,000 years ago, a hunter-gatherer needed about 5,000 kcal per day to get by. A New Yorker today, once all the systems, networks and gadgets of modern life are factored in, needs about 300,000 kilocalories a day That’s a difference in energy needed for survival, between simple and complex lives, of 60 times – and rising. Does that sound like a resilient trend?

If you have a job, and live in a city, the signals of change be hard to see. City centers bustle, restaurants are full, and shop windows sparkle. But, like ghost images on the television, other realities impinge: Eerily empty railway stations; new-built malls that never open; well-dressed people at soup kitchens. These small signs are evidence of a system under extreme stress.

The world is not in danger of running completely out of oil. A lot of oil and gas remain in the ground and under the sea. But those reserves cannot drive growth with the same gusto as before. Today’s thermo-industrial economy grew using oil that, if it did not literally gush out of the ground, was easily extracted using oil-powered machines. In 1930, for the investment of one barrel of oil in extraction efforts, 100 barrels of surplus or net energy were obtained for economic use. Since then, that happy ratio has declined ten-fold or more.

The calamitous decline in net energy is one reason renewables are not the solution. Green energy strategies suffer from an existential flaw: They take ‘global energy needs’ as a given, calculate the quantity of renewable energy sources needed to meet them – and then ignore the fact that it takes energy to obtain energy. In Spain, for example, the Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROI) of their huge solar photovoltaic intallations is a very low 2.45 despite that country’s ideal sunny climate.

Our capacity to think clearly about energy is further handicapped by driving blind. In most economic activities, the energy that you can measure – such as the electricity used by buildings, or in an industrial process – is only one part of the picture. A new technique called Systems Energy Assessment (SEA) estimates the many energy uses, that businesses rely on, that are hidden. Phil Henshaw, who developed SEA, describes as “dark energy” the four fifths of actual energy useage that conventional metrics fail to count.

Eighty percent at five percent

When pressed, technical experts I have spoken to tell me that for our world to be ‘sustainable’ it needs to endure a ‘factor 20 reduction’ in its energy and resource metabolism – to five percent of present levels.  At first I believed, doomily, that Factor 20 was beyond reach. Then, by looking outside the industrial world’s tent, I realised that for eighty per cent of the world’s population, five per cent energy is their lived reality today – and it does not always correspond to a worse life.

Take as an example, healthcare. In Cuba, where food, petrol and oil have been scarce for of 50 years as a consequence of economic blockades, its citizens achieve the same level of health for only five per cent of the health care expenditure of Americans. In Cuba’s five percent system, health and wellbeing are the properties of social ecosystems in which relationships between people in a real-world local context are mutually supportive. Advanced medical treatments are beyond most people’s reach – but they do not suffer worse health outcomes.

Another example of five per cent systems that sustain life is food. In the industrial world, the ratio of energy inputs to the food system, relative to calories ingested, is 12:1. In cities, up to 40 percent of their ecological impact can be attributed to their food and water systems – the transportation, packaging, storage, preparation and disposal of the things we eat and drink .

In poor communities, where food is grown and eaten on the spot, the ratio is closer to 1:1.

My favourite five percent example – a recent one – concerns urban freight. In modern cities, enormous amounts of energy are wasted shipping objects from place to place. An example from The Netherlands: Of the 1,900 vans and trucks that enter the city of Breda (pop: 320,000) each day, less than ten percent of the cargo being delivered really needs to be delivered in a van or truck; 40 percent of van-based deliveries involve just one package. An EU-funded project called CycleLogistics calculates that 50 percent of all parcels delivered in EU cities could be delivered by cargo bike.

According to ExtraEnergy’s tests over several years, an average pedelec uses an average of 1kWh per 100km in electricity. Once all system costs are included, a cargo cycle can be up to 98 percent cheaper per km than four-wheeled, motorised alternatives. Some e-bikers reckon that electric bikes can have a smaller environmental footprint even than pedal-only bicycles when the energy costs of the food needed to power the rider are added.

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RIGZONE – Fossil Fuels to Keep Dominating Energy Consumption Mix

RIGZONE – Fossil Fuels to Keep Dominating Energy Consumption Mix.

by  Karen Boman
|Rigzone Staff
|Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Article title
Despite more than 25 years of efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption and boost renewable energy use, fossil fuels will keep dominating the global energy consumption mix, said IEA’s Fatih Birol.

Despite more than 25 years of efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption and boost renewable energy use, fossil fuels will keepdominating the global energy consumption mix, said International Energy Agency (IEA) Chief Economist Fatih Birol.

In 1987, a number of countries kicked off a major effort to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and increase use of renewable energy resources. This global effort came after Norway’s then Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, issued a report on sustainable development at the request of the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report.

At that time, fossil fuels comprised 82 percent of the mix if energy resources used. Despite 25 years of subsidies and government policies, however, the percentage of fossil fuels in the global energy consumption mix remains at 82 percent.

“This tells us that economic effects are stubborn, and may be more powerful than policy drivers,” Birol noted.

However, the amount of fossil fuels consumed might have even been higher with efforts to curb fossil fuel consumption. Birol believes that fossil fuels will continue to heavily dominate global energy consumption.

Natural gas consumption will grow to a level greater than oil and coal put together. Renewables also are forecast to grow significantly, primarily due to government policies. However, renewables will shrink without government subsidies to promote their use.

IEA sees continued growth in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, meaning the world remains perfectly on track for a temperature increase above a level accepted by scientists. World leaders will try again to address climate change in Paris this year after their failure in Copenhagen in 2009, Birol noted, adding that he believes carbon capture storage should be part of the equation for addressing climate change.

CO2 emissions from the United States, the second largest source of CO2, have improved since 2009. The United States and China are working closely to reduce emissions, and Europe continues to push its climate change agenda. Given these factors, Birol said he wouldn’t be surprised to see positive news on CO2 emissions in the future.

Nearly all countries agree that climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed, Birol said. But who should take on the largest burden of the clean up? China and other developing countries say they shouldn’t get all the blame, pointing out that the amount of coal burned by these countries during the Industrial Revolution still lingers in the atmosphere. However, this argument does not hold water, given the fact that emissions levels from OECD and non-OECD countries are now more or less equal.

China also has argued that emissions can be measured only by megatons, but on a per capital basis, and that China’s 1.3 billion population is much larger and not comparable with other nations. While China may have a point on the per capital basis argument, this argument also is not valid, given that China’s CO2 emissions are overtaking Europe and will overtake that of OECD countries if things don’t change. But Birol believes that “able French diplomats” will help world leaders to reach an agreement with China’s CO2 emissions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015.

Chinese renewables capacity will grow larger to that than all of the United States, Japan and Europe combined. Hydropower will serve as a main source of renewable energy resources in China and other emerging countries. While strong growth will be seen in renewables, all renewable sources except for hydropower will have difficulty competing with fossil fuels without generous government subsidies.

Birol noted that Germany, Spain and Italy are cutting renewables due to financial difficulties, which in turn have boosted renewable energy prices. As a result, some countries are switching back to burning coal.

Brazil to Become Oil Exporter

IEA believes that Brazil’s deepwater oil production will rise significantly, although not as high as official estimates, to 4 MMbopd. The South American country will become a major exporter of oil, eventually joining the ranks of the top six oil producers in the world, said Birol. He considers Brazil a success story not only for raising its oil production growth, but reducing its domestic oil consumption by utilizing hydropower and other renewables.

However, $60 billion a year investment is needed for Brazil to realize its production potential, and attracting this investment may be difficult because of local content and other requirements. These requirements may put tension on the supply chain and delay some projects, Birol noted.

Significant investment will be needed not only in Brazil, but worldwide to ensure the oil needed to meet future demand will be available. Birol estimates that $15.1 trillion in investment is needed over the next 20 years for upstream oil and gas, with 30 percent or $4 trillion of that investment needed in North America to ensure that the U.S. shale revolution continues.

This investment will be required not only to meet new demand – which is just a small part of the story – but to meet existing production demand by enhancing production from existing fields or finding new fields to replace fields in decline.

“If you invest $3 in upstream over the next 20 years, $2 would be needed to maintain production, and $1 would be needed to meet future growth,” Birol noted.

Powerdown: Let’s talk about it

Powerdown: Let’s talk about it.

We’re caught in the squeeze right now.

Climate change is advancing at an incredible speed. We know we should do something, but we lack the political will to do what it takes to hold it to 2°C. UN committees are now being counseled to prepare for 4°C of warming. To keep it survivable, there’s got to be a powerdown — starting today.

Meanwhile green-tech enthusiasts cheer the rapid rate at which certain countries are installing renewable energy infrastructure. But reports are now surfacing of shortages in the rare earth ingredients needed to make that renewable infrastructure. We don’t have enough rare earth materials to replace the whole fossil infrastructure and continue on our current level of consumption. No one dares speak the little secret: Even with renewables, there’s got be a powerdown.

Shale oil is environmental desecration. But people are willing to consider it because there is potentially vast amounts of money in it because the easier-to-get-to oil is running out. Along with stopping fracking, there’s going to be a powerdown. But no one is talking about that part.

We should “keep the coal in the ground” scientists are telling us, and activists have (rightfully) picked up the cry. But no one never mentions the other side of the Stop Coal equation: the powerdown. We have to start talking about what we are willing to give up.

Industry charges forward: expand-expand-expand the airports, the freeways, heedless of the need for powerdown. New extractive drugs, new processed foods, new fashions and ways to consume, more-more-more energy consumption. And consumers and the market applaud it all. They’re inventing new biotech, new robotics, new high tech — all inextricably dependent on energy. Powerdown is such a big secret, that it can’t even be a talking point; it draws a blank stare.

But powerdown has got to happen. And really, really soon.

Powerdown means shifting to tools, techniques, lifestyle habits which use LESS power. It means reducing our energy consumption overall. Across the board. In totality.

Powerdown doesn’t mean convincing ourselves we’re going to convert our entire fleet of fossil automobiles over to an all-electric fleet, because about half of the fossil energy and greenhouse gasses embodied in each vehicle is spent in manufacturing it. Rather, powerdown means shifting to bicycles and human-powered transportation and reorienting our lives and our cities to need LESS transportation.

Powerdown doesn’t mean “more efficient” aircraft. Powerdown means no-fly pledges and stay-cations and moving closer to family. It means foregoing taking the kids abroad; and when your friends mention they’re thinking of doing so, it means responding in a way that makes it clear that it’s socially UNcool.

Powerdown doesn’t mean higher tech, because that requires vast high-powered labs and vast globalized supply chains and more-more-more rare earth materials behind the scenes to manufacture all that stuff. Stuff which will so quickly be outmoded.

Powerdown means inventing tools that run on zero energy, tools made from repurposed materials that humans already have extracted, tools that are durable and repairable because this isn’t a short-term fix. Rather, humanity is in this powerdown game for the long haul.

On a more intangible level, powerdown brings with it inevitable shifts in our economy. We can no longer have economic structures be dependent on more-more-more volume and more-more-more profits. Powerdown means a re-evaluation of what is important: Sufficiency. Basic needs met. Peace and harmony. (The biggest challenge is that last one.)

Powerdown means shifts in other systems too. It means parents and school officials becoming far less enchanted with the glossy hollow call of more-more-more high tech, and much more realistic about teaching the skills of powerdown. Right now we call it “green” to teach tiny kids to plant seeds in recycled plastic bottles, lessons that are completely disconnected from the reality of ecosystems, because it’s so cute. That’s much easier than making part of the high school curriculum the deep skills necessary to pump organic yield, like soil building, crop rotation, intensive urban ag spacing, season stretching, and food preservation. But we’ve got to do it.

Powerdown means our schools Just Saying No to corporate “donations” which strong-arm administrators and parents, and influence students, to place false hopes in the Big Corporate Way. It means teaching Local Foods and Buy Local, not as a “pretty-and-greener it-would-be-nice” feature, but as the core reality of our children’s future. Powerdown means shifting direction today.

Powerdown means political officials finding the backbone to turn away from big corporate dollars, to turn instead toward serious preparation for the realities of our future. Rather than trying to help disadvantaged communities climb on board old-fashioned energy-intense ways, powerdown means publicly and openly declaring that was a false mirage. Powerdown means acknowledging the folly and backing away from the cliff. It means helping all citizens make a direct shift into a more appropriate future.

Powerdown means faith communities embracing their role of cultivating peace and healing the world. It means preaching that large SUVs and use-it-once consumerism and large families are unholy, socially unjust, and sacrilegious. Faith communities can help us acknowledge that the false mirage wasn’t satisfying; that pursuit of it has made us less than who we are meant to be. Powerdown means Practice — as a community — of the lifestyle habits which lead to a peaceful shift: reusable dishes, onsite composting, food not lawns, bike/walk to gatherings, local food potlucks, simple living, connection.

It’s much easier to talk about shiny new stuff like the latest electric car model, or whether bullet trains are a good idea. It’s much easier to chat up the fantasy of high-rise hydroponic food towers, oblivious to their energy demands. But powerdown is here. Powerdown is now. We need to use the term widely.

It’s time to have the tough conversations. Time to get the wider public familiar with the concept. The writing is on the wall: Powerdown is inevitable. If we want any hope of achieving it peacefully, we’ve got to start shifting — minds and physical infrastructure — today.  Powerdown: Say it. Begin it.


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