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The Energy Transition: Too Little, Too Late

Alternative Energy


The idea of the energy transition (“energiewende” in German) originated in the 1980s and gained legislative support in Germany in 2010. The idea is good and also technically feasible. But it requires sacrifices and, at present, sacrifices are politically unthinkable since most people don’t realize how critical the situation really is. What we are doing for the transition seems to be is too little and too late. 

So, how are we doing with the energy transition? Can we eliminate fossil fuels from the world’s energy system? Can we do it before it is too late to avoid the disasters that climate change and resource depletion will bring to us if we continue with business as usual? The debate is ongoing and it sometimes it goes out of control as in the case of the controversy between the group of Professor Jacobsen at and that of Professor Clack which even generated a lawsuit for slander.

As usual, the debate is often based on qualitative consideration: on one side we see plenty of naive optimism (“let’s go solar, rah, rah!”), on the other, we have pure statements of disbelief (“renewables will never be able to…..”).

But science is based on quantitative evaluations and we have plenty of data that should permit us to do better than playing the game of the clash of absolutes. This is what we did, myself and my coworker Sgouris Sgouridis, in a paper that was recently published on “Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality” and titled “In Support of a Physics-Based Energy Transition Planning: Sowing Our Future Energy Needs

In our paper, we started from the Jacobson/Clack controversy and we tried to use physical considerations (not subjected to the vagaries of markets) to examine how fast we can grow renewable energy. That’s constrained by several factors but, as a first consideration by the fact that we need to invest energy now in order to get energy in the future.

This is why we refer to “sowing” in the title of the paper: every farmer knows that one needs to save some of the current harvest as seed for the future one – enough for eating in the future, but not so much that one would starve. In the case of energy, it is the same. We need to invest some fossil energy for the future harvest of renewable energy, but not so much that society would collapse (it is the “Sower’s Strategy“).

So, we propose an approximate, but physics-based, criterion for the possible speed of growth of renewable energy production. The model provides results similar to a more detailed one that we published earlier on. Let me cite from this recent paper:

These questions can be discussed in terms of the concept of “energy yield” or “energy return” and, in particular, from the “Energy Payback Time” (EPBT), a measurement of the time necessary for a new plant to return an amount of energy equal to the amount invested for its construction. EPBT can be expressed as the ratio of the energy invested in the manufacturing of the plant divided by the yearly energy generated. From this definition, we can derive a measurement of the energy investment necessary in order to obtain a certain yearly production of energy. We perform this calculations in the reasonable assumption of a transition period T that is less than or equal to the lifetime of the renewable energy installations; in this way, we do not need to take into account plant replacement. For equal intervals of time, the energy invested is Einv(t)= Etarget (for t= T) × (EPBT/T). If we set “Etarget” as the current global production per year and we assume that we want to maintain it constant throughout the transition, then EPBT/T is the ratio of the needed yearly investments to the current yearly production. Seen in this light, the current values of the EPBT for the most diffuse renewable energy technologies are promising. <..>

If, hypothetically, the EPBT were larger than T, the transition would be physically impossible since it would require more energy than the amount that could be produced. Instead, for T=30 years, EPBT values over ca. 5 years would require investing more than 15% of the overall energy production every year, hence making the transition extremely difficult, although not completely impossible. Conversely, values of the EPBT close to or under 1 year would make the transition relatively facile. For instance, an EPBT=1 year implies that about 3% of the world’s energy production would have to be set aside for the transition. Seen in this light, the current values of the EPBT for the most diffuse renewable energy technologies are promising. <…>

These considerations can be compared to the current situation. The nameplate renewable energy capacity that was installed in 2016 was 161 GWp (IRENA 2017). With an average capacity factor that we can assume to be roughly 0.2, it corresponds to an average power generation of 32 GW. In this case, for renewable technologies with EPBT= 3 years, the Energy invested is about 100 GW, or about 0.8% of the world’s average primary power consumption, 12 TW (IEA 2016). According to these estimates, the current level of energy investments in new renewable energy is not sufficient to attain the transition within the assumed climatic and energetic constraints and should be increased. <..>

With these calculations, we show that physical factors provide fundamental insight on the challenge that humankind faces: the energy transition will be neither easy nor impossible, but it will require a substantially larger rate of energy investment than the currently allocated one.

In short, a transition that could maintain the “BAU” (business as usual) would be physically possible if we were willing to increase of a factor of 5 (at the very least) our investments in it. But, in the current situation, the transition in these terms is politically inconceivable. Increasing investments in renewable energy requires sacrifices. And this is a no-no in the current political situation where, indeed, investments in renewable energy seem to have levelled off rather than to be increasing. In 2016, the global investments were approximately at the same level as they were in 2010. Too little, too late.

So, we are not making it, at least in terms of a smooth substitution of fossil energy with clean energy. It doesn’t mean returning to Middle Ages or even to Olduvai, but that in the future not everyone, and not even a majority of people, will have as much energy as we all have today. The sacrifices we refused to make today will have to be made, and much larger, in the future.

Cassandra’s legacy by Ugo Bardi

57 Comments on "The Energy Transition: Too Little, Too Late"

  1. Apneaman on Mon, 11th Dec 2017 10:37 am 

    ‘100-year floods’ every year? New Texas rain data is redefining storms

    “If you feel like Texas has had a constant stream of 100- or 500-year floods in the past few years, you’re not wrong.

    Texas rainfall estimates, the federal data used to describe flooding, were last updated in the 1960s and ’70s, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is updating them to reflect the increased frequency of heavy rainstorms documented over the past two decades.”–regional/100-year-floods-every-year-new-texas-rain-data-redefining-storms/0HCAT1RXeA9CfR4c410K5N/

  2. Antius on Mon, 11th Dec 2017 11:02 am 

    ‘German company Sunfire can produce hydrogen with an efficiency of 82% from saturated steam 40 kg/h @ 150°C and pressure: 3 bar(g). Forget this 60% efficiency, it is much better.’

    Never said it wasn’t possible, Cloggie. I said it may not be cost effective from a whole systems viewpoint. Did you take the time to look at the detailed spec for this electrolysis cell? The 82% efficiency is the calorific value of the hydrogen divided by the electrical input. But other energy must be supplied in the form of steam – they don’t say what temperature the steam is so we cannot work out how much enthalpy it contains. They are making the assumption that the steam enthalpy is free, or at least much less valuable than energy supplied in the form of electricity. In some situations it will be, in others, maybe not. And there may be a price to pay in current density and capital cost. We don’t know as they don’t say how much it costs, but nothing comes for free.

  3. Apneaman on Mon, 11th Dec 2017 11:12 am 

    Yet another fake green Euro tard.

    Finland torches more coal, overshoots emissions cap by a million tons

    Finland has emerged as one of the EU’s worst carbon emitters in recent years, with coal, steel and oil plants pumping out more CO2.

  4. Dredd on Mon, 11th Dec 2017 11:13 am 

    “Too Little, Too Late”

    There is a lot of that all over the place (Oceans: Abstract Values vs. Measured Values – 5).

  5. tahoe1780 on Mon, 11th Dec 2017 11:24 am 

    We’re no better than Easter Islanders, using our remaining energy to mine bitcoins:

  6. DerHundistlos on Mon, 11th Dec 2017 4:02 pm 

    @ Davy

    “Ah, ok, but do you have a reference and a link?”

    Yes, I do. “60 Minutes” original broadcast date 12-10-2017.

  7. Davy on Mon, 11th Dec 2017 4:16 pm 


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