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The Burning Issue: The Energy Transition From Fire to Electricity

The Burning Issue: The Energy Transition From Fire to Electricity thumbnail

Fire is at the root of our climate problems and it is time we put it out, writes Walt Patterson, Associate Fellow at Chatham House. “We need to switch from using fire to using electricity.

Is climate complicated? Yes – except in one key respect. Countless reams of disputed text preceded the Paris Agreement of December 2015. Media coverage before, during and after the summit was hectic with controversy. Yet all the furious disputation that surrounds the climate issue can be traced back to a single common fourletter word. The word is fire.

Why fire? In the headlong climate debate worldwide, no one talks about fire. They talk about fossil fuels, about emissions, about carbon dioxide, about increasing global temperature, about floods and droughts, about sea-level rise, about melting glaciers and collapsing ice sheets. These, however, are symptoms of what is wrong. They are not the cause. Somehow the commentators fail to notice or remark that all of these factors arise because of fire.

The confrontation is neither technological, nor economic. It is fundamentally political – a political battle we can’t afford to lose

ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and Saudi Aramco do not produce petroleum to make lubricants and plastics, although they could. They produce petroleum mainly for us to burn. No one even thinks of the useful molecular structure of coal. Peabody, BHP and Glencore gouge the landscape and blow the tops off mountains to produce coal for us to burn. The frackers extracting natural gas expect to sell it for us to burn. Vast worldwide enterprise is devoted to feeding fire.

Fire predates us; our Neanderthal precursors used fire. We Homo sapiens evolved with fire. It has been a critical factor in developing human society, allowing us to make light, to cook, to bake ceramics and smelt metals. Even now, we still think of fire as cosy and welcoming. But fire is a violent, extreme process. It produces heat at a temperatures so high it’s dangerous. Fire turns resources rapidly into waste, usually pernicious. Yet because we have always used fire, we have never accurately costed its deleterious consequences. We take them for granted, as though we had no alternative.

We do have an alternative. With the help of fire we have learnt to control electricity. With electricity we can now do most of what we used to do with fire. We make light not by burning oil but with electric lamps. We exert force not with the fire of steam engines but with electric motors. We are even beginning to move people and goods not with fire – internal combustion – but with electric vehicles. Perhaps most important of all, we now manage information with electricity in electronics, expanding at a rate we can hardly comprehend.

We still allow planners to call firebased, coal-burning electricity ‘cheaper’, even as it suffocates cities and upsets the climate we have to live with

Fire is a chemical process. It destroys the material it happens in. Electricity is a physical process. It does not alter the material it happens in, nor does it produce pernicious waste. Electricity could save us the damage fire is doing – except for one awkward detail. We still make most of our electricity with fire.

We don’t have to. We have known for two centuries how to produce electricity without fire, from chemical batteries, then from moving wires, and more recently from sunlight. Today we have a rapidly expanding shopping list of fire-free electricity from water power, wind power and solar power, in many versions, with costs decreasing and performance increasing. But we still allow planners to call firebased, coal-burning electricity ‘cheaper’, even as it suffocates cities and upsets the climate we have to live with.

That is another corollary of fire. Its unwelcome consequences are not just gradual, long-term and global, as is the case for climate. Fire under indoor cooking pots and in kerosene lamps in rural villages in Africa and Asia kills millions of women and children each year. Fire is also the reason you can’t breathe today in Beijing or Delhi. Some sceptics say we should focus on these immediate local issues, rather than climate. But both local and global issues arise from the same ultimate cause. Locally as well as globally we have let fire get out of control.

Governments have always been more financially generous to fossil fuels, than to fire-free renewable electricity. That has to change

What can we do about this? Much of the commentary around the climate issue talks of the emerging transition to a different way of doing what we do – a ‘low-carbon economy’, a ‘fossil-free future’ and so on. However, once we acknowledge the central role of fire, we can describe what we need to do coherently.

First, we need to stop wasting fuel and electricity – that is, stop using fire unnecessarily. That means above all getting serious about improving our inadequate buildings, so they no longer need so much fire-based heating and cooling.

Second, we need to switch from using fire to using electricity, especially in industry and transport.

Third, we need to switch from fire-based to fire-free electricity.

All of these transitions are already under way. Together they constitute a coherent programme of policies and measures that we need to adopt, accelerate and disseminate as rapidly and as widely as possible. We have to challenge spurious comparisons of cost and ‘subsidies’ that ignore the damage wrought by fire. Governments have always been more financially generous to fossil fuels, than to fire-free renewable electricity. That has to change.

In essence, all the different policies and measures supporting the Paris Agreement  are a form of fire-fighting

Fire insurance was one of the oldest forms of risk management. Global fire insurance, investment to cope with the global threat of fire, is now crucial. As the cost of fire-free electricity continues to fall, the opportunities for technological and financial innovation are burgeoning, with new business models, transactions and arrangements. An appealing vision of an electric future, ever more free of fire, is steadily taking shape. But innovators face fierce opposition from those who derive financial and political clout from feeding fire. The confrontation is neither technological, nor economic. It is fundamentally political – a political battle we can’t afford to lose.

In essence, all the different policies and measures supporting the Paris Agreement – the Nationally Determined Contributions, the financial framework, the undertakings and commitments – are a form of fire-fighting. So are national and civic laws and regulations about air quality. To keep our air safe enough to breathe, to keep our only planet cool enough to live on, we have to put out the fire.


Walt Patterson is an Associate Fellow in the Energy, Environment and Resources Programme at Chatham House. His latest book is Electricity vs Fire: The Fight For Our Future, which you can download from his website Walt Patterson on Energy here. It is also available from Amazon for just $7.50 or £5.00. 

This article was first published in the February-March 2016 issue of the Chatham House monthly The World Today and is republished here with permission.

Energy Collective

63 Comments on "The Burning Issue: The Energy Transition From Fire to Electricity"

  1. Cloggie on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 2:38 am 

    Mother Nature laughs at our “renewables”. She knows it will never happen. She holds all the power cards in this game. Build your windmills. She will shift the climate, and the winds. Build the solar farms and she will change the cloud pattern and rain to make them inefficient. Plant the fuel crops and she will ruin them with her weather, insects and disease.

    Thanks makati for this contribution. It is very important and an often overlooked angle what Jesus’, Allah’s and Mother Nature’s take is on the whole problem cluster of peak oil, resource depletion and climate change. Thanks again for being the forum’s Mohamed and messenger of the Almighty.

    Curious question: how does the communication between you and Mother Nature work? Ear whispering? Tea leafs? Divine Inspiration? Dreams?

    Pray tell.

  2. Cloggie on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 3:23 am 

    It ignores two inconvenient truths about solar power: (1) Cheap solar power depends on cheap natural gas. Electrical grade silicon must first be reduced in an electric furnace with pyrolytical graphite electrodes (made from thermal decomposition of natural gas) and then further purified by conversion to silanes, another gas hungry step.

    Are you aware that thin film solar has a rapidly growing PV market share? In that branch of sport you no longer need to grow crystals and saw them into wafers.

    wikipedia “Energy returned on energy invested”:

    Fthenakis determined the EROEI to be as high as 60 for the least energy consuming thin-film PV technology installations in the U.S. Southwest.

    Bye bye “gas hungry steps”.

    (2) By comparing intermittent solar power to a load following coal or natural gas plant you a comparing apples to oranges. To solve the intermittency problem, storage is needed. On the scale needed to balance the grid over periods of days, weeks or months, there are few technologies suitable. Thermal storage in phase change materials is an option, though still experimental.

    They made pretty good progress lately with seasonal storage of heat (EU Merits projects). Dutch languade video with a lot of (very broken) English:

    The real cost of solar would need to account for energy losses in storage, in addition to the capital and operating cost of what amounts to an entire additional power station whose function is to convert high entropy (I.e intermittent) solar electricity into low entropy energy that is suitable for the demand pattern of the grid. A full cost analysis must account for the cost of storage otherwise you are not comparing the same things.

    The real solution for bulk storage is currently pumped hydro-storage. You lose 80% in a storage/release cycle. In the European situation for a country like Holland with massive wind energy plans it means that you pump excess wind power to Norway via an existing 600 million euro NorNed cable (payback time 1 year). New cables are planned. The cable losses back and forth costs yet another 2 x 5 = 10%. So 70% efficiency in total. But this is only a part of the solution. Industry has announced that they expect to deliver 100-200$/kwh storage in a matter of a few years. As an example, remember the Commodore 64 diskdrive Commodore 1541? In 1982, that meant 170 kB floppies, price tag $982 (present day price level). Today you can buy a small external hard drive of 1 GB for less than $100. So in a matter of 33 years, industry managed to improve data storage per $ with a factor of 50,000. I am not saying that industry will accomplish the same improvement for storage of electric energy, but you get the point: technology makes all the difference (but most folks around here HATE technology). This means that you should always have preference for storage as local as possible, before you pump energy to another country. As Tom indicated, you can also store excess renewble energy in hydrogen or CH4.

    Summarizing: the idea is not to continue industrial society as we know it. Forget about mass tourism and flying, forget about mass private car ownership, forget about airconditioning. It is about Kibbutz style, energy autark self-sufficient local rural communities like Guessing (see above). It is about working via computer networks and the cloud and video conferencing, eliminating the need for commuting and private car ownership. It is about local food production. It is about occasional renting a driver-less car from a large pool, maintained by companies.

  3. Cloggie on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 3:33 am 

    You lose 80% in a storage/release cycle.

    Should be: you lose 20%

  4. Davy on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 5:47 am 

    “most folks around here HATE technology” Clog, yes, we hate extinction and destructive change technology as brought us. We hate hollow techno optimism. We do have a problem with extremes on this board that is true. An inconvenient reality is most of us cannot leave technology so we should learn to live with something that is killing us kind of like what a functional alcoholic does. There are strategies for managing addictions. Technology is a dangerous addiction now that most of society can’t leave. Where we can leave it we should. This is why I preach against technology because techno optimism dominates the social narrative. This dominance is very dangerous and destructive. We are doing things now that are going to cost us dearly eventually. One need only look at NUK power with its waste and ask ourselves how that is going to turn out. Let’s look at the green revolution and how hungry that is going to leave us one day.

    Technology is not the answer it is part of the answer. Part of that answer is focus and often less. More for the sake of more is not the answer. The biggest aspect of technology is attitudes and especially the social narrative where large investments are being made. A similar situation is the investments being made by coastal regions who are in denial of climate change. Miami is a perfect example of huge investments in flood control that will never pay off. It would be far better to embrace retreat than to employ more offense. We are losing the war lets engage in tactical retreats. We can win the retreat by acknowledging the war is lost. Nobody wants to admit defeat but sometimes those who do end up doing better. I have made this comparison before. The Germans were highly effective at slowing the Russian advances on the eastern front. If Hitler would have admitted defeat they would have done even better. My point is we can employ technology to help us and we can remove technology to help us. What we shouldn’t do is blindly embrace technology like it is our only hope.

    I get so tired of the academics, scientist, and greenwashed public spewing a techno song of transition without considering the consequences economically and environmentally. They so often spout off how cheap solar is becoming. This price situation is similar to oil with deeper meaning and consequences. Solar might be cheap now but don’t you think negative real rates are a big part of that? Don’t you think that the huge mal-investment we call China is a reason for this? Think of all the carbon generated and wasted by China to build out its industrial capacity. That mal-investment is now dumping cheap solar on the global market as a byproduct. Try to tell me solar is truly cheap when the deeper economics are analyzed because I like the humor of clueless idiots. Price then becomes an argument for more of the status quo but green. Just imagine green washed joe what the world would have been like without a China industrial build out that is delivering you cheap solar. If we would have had the wisdom 20 years ago to avoid a massive buildout called China we would have been light years ahead.

    There are costs involved to technology and these cost are not what they seem on the surface. This is the extreme I am fighting and why every chance I get I bash green washed comments here. We are going to die because of technology. The green washing could even allow that death to happen quicker is we are not careful.

  5. Antius on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 11:56 am 

    Intermittent power has a higher entropy than controllable power. You must invest energy and resources to convert randomly fluctuating power into load following power. Intermittent power is more disordered, hence higher entropy. In the same way that heat at 300K has higher entropy than heat at 1000K. But what you choose to call it is not relevant. Bottom line is, intermittent energy is far less useful than controllable energy. It is worth less and you must spend money and lose a portion of the energy converting it into something you can use. You need in effect, a whole extra power station to do that. This is why solar and wind energy cannot compete with fossil fuels without subsidy. The backup or storage power plant costs as much or more than a natural gas or coal power plant. Hence, solar will not be able to compete with coal or gas until its cost is virtually zero.

  6. Cloggie on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 12:15 pm 

    You must invest energy and resources to convert randomly fluctuating power into load following power.

    So what is your point? Forget about renewable energy and continue to produce massive CO2, while happily drilling away in the country-side, injecting adventurous substances into the soil?

    Bottom line is, intermittent energy is far less useful than controllable energy.

    I have issues with the word “far”.

    The larger the integrated area is in a single grid (like Europe), the less storage facilities you need.

    According to conventional wisdom, renewable energy needs storage options. While it is true that a completely renewable energy system would need mechanisms to balance supply and demand, there is surprisingly little need for energy storage until renewables reach a really high share in the power mix.

    German numbers: they have 5 GW pumped hydro-storage capacity over 15 facilities and a study says that they don’t need additional storage below 60% renewable electricity.

    Shall we implement those 60% first please before we begin to worry about “how useless intermittent renewable energy actually is”?


  7. Antius on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 1:17 pm 

    My original point was that that renewable energy can provide only a small fraction of the energy presently derived from fossil fuels. Wealth and living standards rise in direct proportion to the abundance of energy. In the absence of abundant fossil fuels, power can be produced in the abundance needed by a wealthy society, only by using nuclear energy. The development of nuclear power has virtually stalled since the 1970’s for largely political reasons. This is where money needs to be invested. Solar power and wind energy will be useful in niche applications but they are intrinsically unsuitable for the provision of terrawatt-hours of energy.

  8. Cloggie on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 3:27 pm 

    My original point was that that renewable energy can provide only a small fraction of the energy presently derived from fossil fuels. Wealth and living standards rise in direct proportion to the abundance of energy.

    You have the entire concentrated consultancy power of the EU lined up against you (no to mention The EU thinks that by 2050 fossil fuel will be largely phased out and I think that is a realistic goal.

    Nuclear energy is really a non-starter in this world.

  9. Davy on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 3:49 pm 

    Clog, I don’t think a forecast out to 2050 is responsible. A forecast that far into the future is little better than a guess. Why not say it is our sincere hope we can be free of fossil fuels by 2050.

  10. Cloggie on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 4:13 pm 

    No plan at all is even more irresponsible. And plans have a tendency to materialize. Most people who plan their vacation in say Spain, usually end up in Spain, not Sweden.

    Ambition level 2020:

    The EU setting renewable energy targets has profound effect on the rest of society and member states in particular. Nobody wants to be seen lagging behind.

    Nobody knows if these targets will be met. Populist parties oppose them. Perhaps the EU won’t exist by 2050.

  11. Apneaman on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 6:01 pm 

    University of Utah professor Tim Garrett says conservation is futile

    “He doesn’t see the major cause of global warming being stabilized any other way than if the increasing flow of carbon-dioxide emissions ultimately collapses the world’s economy or society builds the equivalent of one new nuclear power plant each day. Nuclear plants, which produce one gigawatt of continuous power, would be necessary to compensate for the increasing growth in energy consumption around the world, said Garrett,”

  12. Davy on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 6:58 pm 

    I agree with the professor Ape. This situation is deterministic in nature. Our meaningful options are adaptation and mitigation to unstoppable forces. It is too late to change this fate. We could also say the probability of a success of sorts rests with our focus on adaptation and mitigation not achieving a solution. This is becuase a search for solutions will waste precious time and resources at a time when both are running out. Similar strategies will apply to other predicaments so we can take a macro approach to a broad based collapse process.

  13. Cloggie on Fri, 30th Dec 2016 5:12 am
    Cost for offshore windpower has meanwhile reduced to ca 1 million euro per installed megawatt.
    Siemens introduced its 8 MW offshore windturbine this summer. Elsewhere I calculated that a 6 MW machine generates an amount of energy the equivalent of 124 barrel of oil per day under admittedly extremely positive North Sea conditions with average wind speed of 9.5 m/s. Scale that up to 124 * 8 /6 = 165 barrel /day. Or 60334 barrel per year. Or calculated over a life span of 30 years: 1.81 million barrel. Net price tag 8 million. Add to that 1 million for connection and 20% life time maintenance cost, makes 11 million euro. For that amount you get 1.81 million barrel of oil energy equivalent. That is 6 euro per barrel. Even if the price of wind would be 2 of 3 times higher than the 11 million back of an envelope calculation, it still would be wildly profitable. Perhaps folks here now begin to understand why there is such a rush into wind energy in Holland, Britain, Germany and Denmark. CO2 is not the only motivation, but profit at least as important. Promoting fossil fuel in NW-Europe in 2016 that is like promoting the steam engine in 1950 America.

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