Peak Oil and the Meltdown (3): the transition

My conclusion from a careful survey of energy alternatives, then, is that there is little likelihood that either conventional fossil fuels or alternative energy sources can be counted on to provide the amount and quality of energy that will be needed to sustain economic growth—or even current levels of economic activity—during the remainder of this century.

Richard Heinberg continues his treatment of the role of Peak Oil in the current meltdown.

This excerpt features a key argument, which I have seen in most people that have studied the issue carefully: there is no smooth transition to a alternative future based on renewable energies!

Richard Heinberg:

“At this point in the discussion many readers will be wondering why alternative energy sources and efficiency measures cannot be deployed to solve the Peak Oil crisis. After all, as petroleum becomes more expensive, ethanol, biodiesel, and electric cars all start to look more attractive both to producers and consumers. Won’t the magic of the market intervene to render oil shortages irrelevant to future growth?

It is impossible in the context of this discussion to provide a detailed explanation of why the market probably cannot solve the Peak Oil problem. Such an explanation requires a discussion of energy evaluation criteria, and an analysis of many individual energy alternatives on the basis of those criteria. I have offered brief overviews of this subject previously and a much longer one is in press.

My summary conclusions in this regard are as follows.

About 85 percent of our current energy is derived from three primary sources—oil, natural gas, and coal—that are non-renewable, whose price is likely to trend sharply higher over the next years and decades leading to severe shortages, and whose environmental impacts are unacceptable. While these sources historically have had very high economic value, we cannot rely on them in the future; indeed, the longer the transition to alternative energy sources is delayed, the more difficult that transition will be unless some practical mix of alternative energy systems can be identified that will have superior economic and environmental characteristics.

But identifying such a mix is harder than one might initially think. Each energy source has highly specific characteristics. In fact, it has been the characteristics of our present energy sources (principally oil, coal, and natural gas) that have enabled the building of an urbanized society with high mobility, large population, and high economic growth rates. Surveying the available alternative energy sources for criteria such as energy density, environmental impacts, reliance on depleting raw materials, intermittency versus constancy of supply, and the percentage of energy returned on the energy invested in energy production, none currently appears capable of perpetuating this kind of society.

Moreover, national energy systems are expensive and slow to develop. Energy efficiency likewise requires investment, and further incremental investments in efficiency tend to yield diminishing returns over time, since it is impossible to perform work with zero energy input. Where is there the will or ability to muster sufficient investment capital for deployment of alternative energy sources and efficiency measures on the scale needed?

While there are many successful alternative energy production installations around the world (ranging from small home-scale photovoltaic systems to large “farms” of three-megawatt wind turbines), there are very few modern industrial nations that now get the bulk of their energy from sources other than oil, coal, and natural gas. One example is Sweden, which obtains most of its energy from nuclear and hydropower. Another is Iceland, which benefits from unusually large domestic geothermal resources not found in most other countries. Even for these two nations, the situation is complex: the construction of the infrastructure for their power plants mostly relied on fossil fuels for the mining of the ores and raw materials, for materials processing, for transportation, for the manufacturing of components, for the mining of uranium, for construction energy, and so on. Thus a meaningful energy transition away from fossil fuels is still a matter of theory and wishful thinking, not reality.

My conclusion from a careful survey of energy alternatives, then, is that there is little likelihood that either conventional fossil fuels or alternative energy sources can be counted on to provide the amount and quality of energy that will be needed to sustain economic growth—or even current levels of economic activity—during the remainder of this century.

But the problem extends beyond oil and other fossil fuels: the world’s fresh water resources are strained to the point that billions of people may soon find themselves with only precarious access to water for drinking and irrigation. Biodiversity is declining rapidly. We are losing 24 billion tons of topsoil each year to erosion. And many economically significant minerals—from antimony to zinc—are depleting quickly, requiring the mining of ever lower-grade ores in ever more remote locations. Thus the Peak Oil crisis is really just the leading edge of a broader Peak Everything dilemma.

In essence, humanity faces an entirely predictable peril: our population has been growing dramatically for the past 200 years (expanding from under one billion to nearly seven billion), while our per-capita consumption of resources has also grown. For any species, this is virtually the definition of biological success. And yet all of this has taken place in the context of a finite planet with fixed stores of non-renewable resources (fossil fuels and minerals), a limited ability to regenerate renewable resources (forests, fish, fresh water, and topsoil), and a limited ability to absorb industrial wastes (including carbon dioxide). If we step back and look at the industrial period from a broad historical perspective that is informed by an appreciation of ecological limits, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are today living at the end of a relatively brief pulse—a 200-year rapid expansionary phase enabled by a temporary energy subsidy (in the form of cheap fossil fuels) that will inevitably be followed by an even more rapid and dramatic contraction as those fuels deplete.

The winding down of this historic growth-contraction pulse doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world, but it does mean the end of a certain kind of economy. One way or another, humanity must return to a more normal pattern of existence characterized by reliance on immediate solar income (via crops, wind, or the direct conversion of sunlight to electricity) rather than stored ancient sunlight.

This is not to say that the remainder of the 21st century must consist of a collapse of industrialism, a die-off of most of the human population, and a return by the survivors to a way of life essentially identical to that of 16th century peasants or indigenous hunter-gatherers. It is possible instead to imagine acceptable and even inviting ways in which humanity could adapt to ecological limits while further developing cultural richness, scientific understanding, and quality of life (more of this below).

But however it is negotiated, the transition will spell an end to economic growth in the conventional sense. And that transition appears to have begun.”

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