Friday, May 23, 2014

The Sower

People get ready
 -Curtis Mayfield

Smile on your brother
everybody get together
   - The Youngbloods (Get together)


     I've been puzzling over something Chris Nelder said in an interview at the Extra Environmentalist.  Fortunately, someone has made a transcript , so I don't need to rely on the my memory.

    He addresses a sort of paradox.  As long as we have cheap fossil fuels, we have little incentive to build out alternatives.  But once, the fossil fuels become scarce and expensive, we won't have the "extra" resources needed to do the job.

     He suggests we have a window of 15 -20 years to do our build out.   Below, Ugo Bardi suggest a way a way to do it. 

 Let's hope we don't eat up all our "seed corn", while we still have some to spare!


      Justin: I hear frequently on blogs and in other discussions that building renewables won’t work because of what we were just discussing about the drop off of oil production and the difficult economic consequences that such a drop would have, especially later this decade. Could [this fall off in oil availability] prevent us from building out renewable energy infrastructure?
Chris: I’ve made that argument myself. I’m very concerned about it. If we do in fact have global oil production beginning to decline around 2015, which has been my call for quite a few years now, and when you actually calculate the decline rates to look at how much oil would be lost on the global market, year after year… then you start to think about the effect on the global economy of losing 5%… and then 10%… and then 20% of global oil production. Then it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to think, ‘Wow, it is really going to be difficult to maintain a functioning economy.’ It is going to be hard to maintain global shipping. It is going to be hard to maintain an industry of, for example, big wind turbines where the supply chain for the parts in those turbines might go all around the world.
My view has been that we should build as much renewable capacity as possible for the next 20 years while the availability of oil is reasonably good, and the price is reasonably acceptable. I think once you get out past say… 2030, it is going to be quite difficult, and quite expensive, to build or deploy anything that requires a lot of shipping or requires parts coming from all around the world.
Now some people will take this question a step further and say, ‘What about later in the century when you get out to 2070 or 2080 when most of the oil is gone, most of the natural gas is gone, what about that? How do we build wind turbines and solar panels and get them installed?’ Well, I think that’s an interesting question, but the more I think about it, the more I conclude that we just don’t have enough information to answer that question right now. It is just formally unanswerable because there’s too many questions, too many uncertainties about how people will react. What will happen to the geopolitical environment? What will happen to population, what will happen to energy supply? There’s just way too many X factors and we don’t know.
I think it is conceivable, maybe somewhat remotely conceivable, that at some point, in the 22nd century perhaps, we could have an economy entirely powered by renewable energy where we’re actually able to do things like… mining, smelting, manufacturing, transportation and installation and more using only renewable electricity as the energy source and to drive all the machines. Or, maybe we’ll have some very small fraction of the stuff that we currently use liquid fuels for. Maybe this can be powered using some sort of biofuels, but this is just not a formally answerable question.
I’ve batted this question around a lot, especially with people who are literate on the energy return on investment (EROI) question. What’s the EROI of these renewable fuels? Can you run a civilization on them? I’ve looked at these studies on solar and on cellulosic ethanol or other types of biofuels, wind and so on, and I just don’t think they’re conclusive. I’ve got so many issues with these analyses, I don’t think it’s possible to really be terrible conclusive about what it all means. Though one thing I do know, is that we have to build as much renewable capacity as we possibly can in the next 20 years, while oil is reasonably available and reasonably priced.


The sower's strategy: how to speed up the sustainable energy transition

by Ugo Bardi, originally published by Extracted! blog  | MAY 22, 2014
This text was originally published as part of "Disrupting the Future", a series of essays correlated to "2052", a book by Jorgen Randers

… and when he sowed, some seeds fell by the wayside, and the fowls came and devoured them up: some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: but other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 13.4-9).

Abstract. In order to survive the double threat of resource depletion and climate change we need to move as quickly as possible to a sustainable society based on renewable resources. We are already moving in that direction, but we are still investing huge amounts of money to perpetuate our dependency on fossil fuels. Here, I argue that the transition can be eased and accelerated if we adopt the “sower's strategy.” Farmers, as well know, must not eat their seed corn; they must keep some of the harvest for the future. Applied to the world's economy, the sower's strategy dictates that we use part of the energy and resources produced by means of fossil fuels to build renewable energy plants and a sustainable economy. This strategy is primarily something to be agreed upon but it could also be embodied in an international protocol (the “sower's protocol”?) that would mandate that a fraction of the worldwide revenues from fossil fuels should be invested in sustainability and renewable energy.

“Don't eat your seed corn!” is a well known saying. It refers to the age-old farmer's strategy of saving some of the harvest of the current year as seeds for the next. Unfortunately, however, our main energy source today, fossil fuels, produce no “seeds.” Once extracted and used, they are gone forever and the same is true for all our mineral resources. This is what we call “depletion.” In addition, fossil fuel burning is the main cause of climate change; an even more worrisome problem.

So far, we have been behaving like farmers who eat their seed corn; burning fossil fuels and consuming our resources as fast as possible. And we are still investing enormous amounts of money just to continue doing that. According to the Grantham research institute, about 650 billion dollars were spent to develop new fossil fuel resources in 2012, mainly for oil and gas and, in particular, for the so called “non conventional resources” (e.g., shale oil). This is the result of our current way of thinking which emphasizes short term gains. Not only does this strategy worsen the climate problem, but it forces us to spend more and more as depletion progresses and that perpetuates our dependence on fossil fuels. Obviously, that can't continue for a long time.

Is there a way out? Yes, if we go back to the wisdom of ancient farmers: don't eat your seed corn! Of course, we can't sow fossil fuels but we can sow what these fuels provide: energy and minerals. We can use some of this energy and these minerals as seed to create the structures needed for a sustainable economy until, in the future, renewable energy eventually produces enough “seed” to replace itself and we learn how to recycle minerals much more efficient than we do now. This is the sower's strategy applied to the modern world.

We are already using this strategy. At present, most of the resources used to build renewable energy plants and other elements of a sustainable economy come from fossil fuels. It is good that we are doing that, but are we doing enough? According to UNEP, some 250 billion dollars were spent in 2012 for new renewable sources. This is much less than what is being invested in fossil energy but, so far, it has nevertheless allowed a rapid and consistent growth of renewable energy. The problem is that there is no guarantee that the necessary levels of investment will be maintained in the future if we continue giving priority to fossil fuels. Already in 2012, indeed, we saw a decline in the investments in renewables. So, if we leave choices on energy to the market alone, we risk facing runaway climate change together with rapid resource depletion without having sufficient resources available to create a new energy system. If we continue along this path we will eat all our seed corn.

Instead, we need to save our seed corn. It means investing a significant fraction of the energy and resources we are producing today into a sustainable economy even though that may not provide the largest short term returns. First of all, it means investing in renewable energy. This is to be intended as energy technologies that don't produce greenhouse gases, are efficient in term of energy return for energy invested (EROI) and don't occupy too much land; in particular photovoltaics and wind. It also includes infrastructures and industrial technologies which tend to recover resources and avoid the use of rare and disappearing mineral resources. The concept of “efficiency” can also be included, with the caveat that it must perpetuate dependency on fossil fuels (an example of an ineffective strategy in this sense is moving from coal to natural gas). 

Then, how do we implement the sower's strategy? It may not need formal measures; we can see it as a form wisdom that already exists in people's minds and that leads to supporting investments in renewables in general. But we can also think of an international protocol (the “sower's protocol"?) mandating that a fraction of the revenues obtained by fossil fuels must be dedicated to the development of a sustainable economy; in particular renewable sources. The protocol could be based on the revenues from a carbon tax but, perhaps better, it could directly act on private or state owned energy companies. After all, investing in energy production is their job and we are not asking them to pay money, we are asking them to make money; albeit on a longer time scale. The protocol could also mandate non-monetary measures, such as for governments to ease permits and reduce bureaucracy for investments in sustainability.

No matter how implemented, the sower's strategy implies that we need to invest enough to create a new energy system before depletion (or global warming) makes it impossible to do so, but not so much that it would be an excessive burden on people's welfare. It is a window of opportunity that will not be there forever, but which probably still exists today. Consider that the 58 largest world's oil and gas companies together collected in 2012 revenues for almost 6 trillion dollars (wikipedia). If they were to re-invest just 4% of those revenues in renewable energy, that would double the amount spent today in the sector.

Independently of the actual fraction to be set apart, we can say that the sower's strategy, especially if implemented as a formal protocol, could be a true game changer in sustainability since:

1. It speeds up the transition, ensuring that sustainability and renewable energy will remain consistently supported.

2. It diverts investments from fossil fuels, forcing them to decline faster than they would if left to market forces alone. That speeds up the transition and eases the problem of global warming.

3. It stimulates the economy and creates jobs. It has the force of a positive approach: we are not asking people to stay home in the dark: we are asking them to work for the transition and make money on it!

4. The well known principle: “do not eat your seed corn” is something that everyone can understand. It will be hard for negative propaganda to distort it so much to make it appear as part of a Communist plot to enslave mankind (but never underestimate the power of PR).

The sower's strategy by itself, formally or informally implemented, does not guarantee a smooth transition to a sustainable (and cool enough) world. It can't go against the laws of physics and it can't allow humankind to continue growing forever. Adapting our economy to renewable energy requires new infrastructure, rethinking industrial processes, adapting to the gradual reduction in the availability of all mineral resources. Among other things, we'll need to learn how to use renewable energy to power agriculture, to replace rare minerals with common ones (e.g. copper with aluminum), to manage waste as a resource and not as a burden, and much more.

Clearly, building up a completely sustainable economy is a difficult task, but it is not an impossible one. The only impossible thing is to keep civilization alive without energy and resources. The sower's strategy may give us a chance for doing that.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home