The issue of where we will get our energy from in the coming decades is becoming ever more urgent. CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere at alarming rates, and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently stated that the majority of known reserves of fossil fuels will need to be left in the ground if we are to have a chance at keeping warming below two degrees Celsius. This effectively means that fossil fuels must be phased out as soon as possible. But what are we going to replace them with? Bearing in mind that nobody wants to return to the dark ages, there is a pressing need to come up with viable alternatives, which can provide substantial amounts of energy, and which can do so quickly.
I have recently read two very different visions for our shared energy future. The first comes from Paul Gilding, who in his 2011 book “ The Great Disruption”, outlines a plan he calls the One-Degree War. This plan was developed by Gilding, along with Jorgen Randers, one of the original authors of the 1972 report “The Limits to Growth”. The key objective of the plan is to stabilize global temperature rise at only one degree above current levels. To do this requires that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere be brought down to under 350 ppm by the middle of the century, from their current level of just under 400 ppm.
The key elements of Gilding’s and Rander’s plan are as follows:
- Cut deforestation by 50%, and use commercial plantations to maximize carbon uptake.
- Close one thousand of the dirtiest coal power plants within five years.
- Ration electricity and energy use.
- Retrofit remaining coal plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS).
- Invest hugely in wind and solar generation capacity.
- Cut back considerably on air travel and reduce the number of vehicles on the road.
- Bind massive amounts of carbon in the soil, through sustainable agricultural practices.
- Reduce the consumption of carbon unfriendly protein, such as grain fed beef.
- Develop initiatives to dramatically reduce energy consumption.
This plan relies heavily on the use of renewable energy. Critics often dismiss renewables as lacking the capability to be scaled up to meet projected power requirements. However, as Gilding points out, the adoption of new technology tends to be exponential in nature. Once critical momentum is reached he believes that it will be possible to massively expand wind and solar, over a much shorter time span than most analysts predict. This trend is already apparent in the recent uptake of solar power across the world, which has consistently exceeded the estimates of industry analysts. In the last year, there have also been exciting new developments in the technology of flow batteries which have the potential to even out the intermittent power supply from wind and solar, thus overcoming one of the major obstacles to more widespread deployment of renewables.
A very different vision of the energy future is offered by Tom Blees in his book “Prescription for the planet”. Blees is an outspoken advocate for nuclear energy, and in particular what are known as Integrated Fast Reactors (IFRs). These are fourth generation nuclear reactors, which can be powered using the spent fuel from existing nuclear reactors. Unlike conventional thermal nuclear reactors, which use barely one percent of the energy in their uranium fuel, IFRs use virtually all of the energy in their fuel, meaning that the stockpiles of nuclear waste accumulated to date could theoretically provide all the energy the world is likely to require for hundreds of years. As a positive side effect, these reactors generate a small fraction of the waste that conventional reactors do, and this waste can easily be stored on site, since it is considerably less radioactive than conventional waste. From the safety point of view IFRs are designed to automatically shutdown in the event of an emergency, thus eliminating the possibility of a core meltdown. By way of contrast, most nuclear reactors currently in service rely on active cooling systems which are vulnerable in the event of an emergency. This was illustrated all too clearly at Fukushima, where the main cooling system and the backup cooling systems both failed, causing the reactor to overheat.
Nuclear power has always been controversial in the environmental community, with many people refusing to even consider the possibility. This viewpoint is represented by physician Helen Caldicott, the winner of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. However a number of influential thinkers, such as James Lovelock, developer of the Gaia hypothesis, and James Hansen, the former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, have publicly stated that they believe nuclear power to be the only way we will be able to meet the future energy demands of our civilization. In recent years, prominent environmentalists, such as Marc Lynas, and the Guardian’s George Monbiot, have also come out in favour of nuclear power. Still, many environmentalists remain resolutely opposed to nuclear expansion. Gilding himself does not rule out the nuclear option, but he remains unconvinced that it is the best way forward.
Contrasting Visions of the Future
However, the renewables vs. nuclear debate is about more than which electrical generation technology will best serve us in the long run. It can be seen as a metaphor for competing visions of future society; about whether we adopt a more localized, community-focused way or life, or continue with business as usual; about whether we learn to live within our means, or pursue a future in which energy is abundant and cheap. People’s perceptions are often shaped by idealized visions of what they want the future to look like, rather than by a realistic assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of the different technologies, and how best they can serve us in an uncertain future. It is a debate in which neither side appears willing to listen to the legitimate concerns of those opposing them.
In truth, the energy landscape is far more complex than this simple choice would suggest. Unfortunately, fossil fuels will probably be with us for a number of years to come, regardless of what choices we make. Obviously phasing out fossil fuel generation should be the number one priority if we are keep additional warming to under two degrees Celsius. It should also be borne in mind that there is a considerable difference between electrical generation and total energy production. This is particularly true when it comes to transportation. Petroleum is an extremely energy dense fuel, and while we may be driving electric vehicles before long, it is unlikely that heavy trucks and aircraft will be powered electrically any time in the near future.
What this simplistic picture also fails to take account of are the impact of other future energy sources. Technologies such as hydro power, geothermal, wave and tidal power, ocean thermal energy conversion, and biofuels will all be part of the future energy landscape in one form or another. There is also a strong possibility that nuclear fusion will be part of this equation. Often described as the ultimate energy source, it is likely that we will see significant advances towards fusion power being made over the next few years.
No one can say for sure what tomorrow’s energy landscape will look like. However we need to look to the broader perspective. Energy availability will affect how and where we live, what we eat, how we work, and our relationship with the Earth. As such it is about far more than a preference for one form of energy over another. It is about whether we move towards a future which stresses energy conservation and living small, or a future where energy availability is no longer seen as a limiting factor.