by Scott Lewis
Energy is one of my secret fascinations. I suppose it’s not such a secret any more (now that you’re reading this…).
One of my Big Three environmental issues (along with Toxic Pollution and Biodiversity), our reliance of fossil fuel energy is the driver behind the climate crisis, a lot of the toxic pollution and biodiversity issues, and so full of complexity and intrigue that it fascinates and perplexes me to no end.
Industrial society uses lots of concentrated – and for transportation, portable – energy, to run.
We need 24/7 base load.
We need peak load.
We need we need we need.
And most of our current energy modalities are destroying the planet, or at least, the planet’s ability to sustain the diversity of life and the human quality of life we aspire to preserve (and bring to more people).
Global Energy Use: World Marketed Energy Consumption, 1980-2030 (Source: US Energy Information Administration (EIA))
The irony. There is so much energy “out there,” if we were smart and strategic, we wouldn’t know what to do with all the excess. 
The biopshere is brimming with massive energy flows, including:
- direct solar,
- indirect solar (which includes wind, appropriate – non-fossil fuel based, non-food crop displacing – biofuel, and wave),
- tidal (which is moon, whereas wave is wind is solar),
It’s all about priorities, design intent, political corruption (much of it legal in the form of campaign finance and ‘revolving door’ lobbying, just made worse by the US Supreme Court).
If we *really* wanted to, we could be on 100 percent renewables, globally, in a decade or two, easily. Easily meaning the technology exists – today – assuming the will were aligned, not meaning we’ll ever get the will aligned.
Yes, it would be costly. But the Greenland ice sheet sliding into the North Atlantic will be more costly. AND, it would also help solve major issues of pollution, habitat destruction and the political and economic challenges associated with our dependency on imported fossil fuels.
It really is a matter of choice, urgency, and priorities.
The Challenge : Economics 101
Price is a huge driver of human behavior. Gasoline in the US currently costs in the range of $3/gallon. That price doesn’t include environmental externalities (estimated at $120 billion in 2005 alone) nor the cost of keeping our troops in Saudi Arabia, much less the Iraq war or all the other subsidies hidden from view. Therefore, it does not reflect the REAL COST, to society, of its manufacture, distribution and use.
Keep price signals artificially low, you get too much of any activity: This is Economics 101 (low price, more activity; high price, less activity). With gas at $9/gallon, in Norway you don’t see a lot of Hummers. Between conservation  – still the cheapest energy source by far (now getting rebranded “energy efficiency,” which some marketing guys must have figured out raises VC money faster than conservation) – and all that free sunlight hitting the planet’s surface every day, we are flush with opportunity. Yes, storage and portability is a challenge. Dumb grid is a challenge. But compared to climate change, these challenges pale. It’s not about possibility, it’s about political will.
So don’t let anyone tell you it’s about cost or technological barriers.
Two great and inspiring articles:
— A path to 100 percent renewables using Wind, Water and Solar (WWS) by 2030 (from Scientific American, no less).
— The potential addition to the WWS equation by what the author, a retired DuPont scientist, refers to as clean biofuels – not made from corn or switchgrass (bad), but from things like algae grown on the surface of the sea, and a plant that literally “grows gasoline.”
1.The total solar energy absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land masses is approximately 3,850,000 exajoules (EJ) per year. In 2002, this was more energy in one hour than the world used in one year.
2. “studies show a median technical potential of 33% for electricity and 40% for gas, and median economic potentials for electricity and gas of 20% and 22% respectively.” ACEEE (2004) See source (AEEE article) here.