Why do we need to discuss energy a lot more?


Even though we know that energy is critical for human survival and the society we have built, there is still a tendency to avoid broad and deep discussions on the subject. Perhaps it is too big and complex. Some of the many important perspectives include:

  • energy for everyone on earth
  • energy use
  • energy sources
  • energy and EROI
  • sustainable energy consumption
  • energy and resilience
  • grid stability
  • energy and transport systems
  • energy and climate 
  • energy and health
  • energy storage
  • energy and geopolitics
  • energy and living standards

Although poverty has been greatly reduced in the world, there are still 1) hundreds of millions of people without access to electrical energy 2) billions of people with limited access to energy 3) huge differences in energy consumption between poor, middle-income and very rich people. It is easy to understand that if everyone were to consume as much energy as rich people, it would be impossible to solve the future energy needs.

Take the following figures as approximations, as they are taken from different sources and different years. The breakdown of energy use in rich countries is roughly as follows: 31% transport, 27% households, 25% industry and 15% services. Around 60% of the energy used in households is used for heating, cooling and hot water. Within the industrial sector, manufacturing accounts for the largest share of annual industrial energy consumption, generally followed by mining, construction, and agriculture. Two thirds of energy consumption comes from fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas), around 20% comes from electricity and around 10% from biofuels and waste. But fossil fuels account for about 80% of energy production. About 11% of the energy consumed globally for heating, power, and transportation came from modern renewables in 2019 (i.e., biomass, geothermal, solar, hydro, wind, and biofuels), and about 10% comes from nuclear plants. Around 65% of oil production is used for transport. About a third of all coal is used for iron and steel production. About 37% of all gas goes to industry and 30% to housing. About 42% of all electricity goes to industry and 27% to housing.

When humans found oil some 150 years ago, the EROI was 100:1 - a unit of energy invested returned 100. For us to reasonably sustain the current civilization, an EROI of 12:1 is required (should be discussed).

EROI today:

  • wind power 3.8:1
  • hydropower 35:1 - 49:1
  • solar power 1.6:1
  • biofuels 1.6:1
  • nuclear power between 5:1 and 15:1
  • average for oil today 11:1 (1990 35:1)
  • coal 50:1 (in China 27:1)
  • natural gas 10:1

What is sustainable energy consumption per person? It's hard to say, but for a European citizen it might be a tenth of today's level. Whatever the exact figures, radical rethinking is needed. Electric cars may be great, but the future requires whole new way of living, producing and consuming if it is going to be globally sustainable. And resilience is also an important factor. The planet could be hit at any time by a super-strong solar storm, Carrington or stronger, which could knock out most of the electricity and circuitry in cars, machines, pumps, etc. through a massive electromagnetic pulse. In July 2012, the Earth was one week away from being hit by such a solar storm. This means that the whole society must be designed to survive such an event, even if conditions will be tough. This has major implications for energy production, energy sources, energy use and the design of products.

Another crucial part of the energy system is stability and storage. As more energy sources are used that do not provide consistent energy production, such as solar PV and wind power, the grid needs stabilizing electricity production from either hydro dams, nuclear, bioenergy, huge battery banks or massive hydrogen storage capacity. But some of the technologies are not yet fully developed, some have serious side effects, and the resources required to build them may be unsustainable from a global perspective. Power lines from the north should only be used for levelling and new long-distance power lines for power transmission are hardly profitable and/or take a very long time to build.

Today's global transport system is unsustainable for several reasons: 1) huge energy demand 2) huge vehicle fleet 3) huge material demand 4) unsustainable energy sources 5) huge infrastructure demand 6) huge maintenance demand and rapid technological depreciation 7) uses the world's fossil resources. These reasons result in some radical conclusions: a) cities and communities must be to a very high degree self-sufficient to minimize transport b) humanity must shift to airborne transport in the future because a global grounded road network is unsustainable, which will require new energy sources and anti-gravity c) vehicles must be much lighter, contain much fewer parts and last much longer d) fixed transport systems in cities must be small-scale, resilient and require little energy.

When people lack access to modern energy sources for cooking and heating, they rely on solid fuel sources, mostly firewood, but also dung and crop waste. This comes at a massive cost to the health of people in energy poverty in the form of indoor air pollution. For the poorest people in the world it is the largest risk factor for early death and global health research suggests that indoor air pollution is responsible for 1,6 million deaths each year, twice the death count of poor sanitation.

Fossil fuels have been and are a major source of geopolitical conflict. Much of the warfare in modern history can be traced back to energy and resources. This situation has caused enormous suffering and destruction.

Energy use is also closely linked to the destruction of nature and biodiversity. A high-energy society builds copious amounts of buildings, uses large amounts of land for infrastructure, uses large vehicles on vast monocultures, causes large-scale deforestation, uses large-scale fishing, pollutes with large-scale transport and production systems, and consumes enormous amounts of products.

What do all these figures and information tell us? Among others that 1) energy demand is distributed throughout society 2) energy demand is difficult to reduce significantly without radical changes in society 3) transportation must be reduced drastically 4) total energy demand per person in rich countries must be reduced significantly 5) demand for steel and iron must probably be reduced drastically 6) the energy demand of industry, including agriculture, must be reduced significantly. In short, the whole of society has to undergo radical changes on several levels, which in fact mean a whole new way of organizing society.

I often get the impression that politicians and people in general believe that the world is moving towards sustainability and that current transition and technological developments will solve the energy challenges we face. But as most people realize when they read the above, that is not the case at all. Instead, humanity needs to seriously discuss how a whole new society can be designed where cities and communities are largely self-sufficient, and where all sectors are nailed down how they can be radically redesigned to minimize energy needs, increase resilience, and achieve sustainability, while not having to drastically reduce living standards. I believe it is entirely possible.

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