The Need for a New Economic System – Part 3: Climate Change and the Urgent Need for Renewable Energy
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 10 Aug 2015
One of the greatest threats to the survival of the human species and the biosphere is catastrophic climate change. Scientists warn that if the transition to renewable energy does not happen within very few decades, there is a danger that we will reach a tipping point beyond which feedback loops, such as the albedo effect and the methane hydrate feedback loop, will take over and produce an out-of-control and fatal increase in global temperature.
In 2012, the World Bank issued a report warning that without quick action to curb CO2 emissions, global warming is likely to reach 4 degrees C during the 21st century. This is dangerously close to the temperature that initiated the Permian-Triassic extinction event: 6 degrees C above normal. During the Permian-Triassic extinction event, which occurred 252 million years ago, 96% of all marine species were wiped out, as well as 70% of all terrestrial vertebrates.
Is a quick transition to 100 % renewable energy technically possible? The remarkable characteristics of exponential growth can give us hope that it can indeed be done, provided that we make the necessary effort.
The Earth Policy Institute recently reported that, “Between 2008 and 2013, as solar panel prices dropped by roughly two thirds, the PV installed worldwide skyrocketed from 16,000 to 139,000 megawatts… In its January 2014 solar outlook report, Deutsche Bank projected that 46,000 megawatts would be added to global PV capacity in 2014 and that new installations would jump to a record 56,000 megawatts in 2015.”
An analysis of the data given by the Earth Policy Institute shows that global installed photovoltaic capacity is now increasing by 27.8% per year. Because of the remarkable properties of exponential growth, we can predict that by 2034, the world’s installed PV capacity will have reached 47.7 terawatts, more than twice today’s global consumption of all forms of energy (provided, of course, that the present rate of growth is maintained).
We can see from this analysis, and from data presented by Lester Brown and his coauthors Janet Larsen, Mathew Roney and Emily Adams, in their recent book “The Great Transition”, that the urgently-needed replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy is technically achievable. But it also requires political will. For example the present rapid rate of growth of global PV capacity was initiated by the German government’s enlightened financial policies.
Government measures helping renewables are vital. At present, governments give billions in direct and indirect support of fossil fuel giants, which in turn sponsor massive advertising campaign to convince the public that anthropogenic climate change is not real. Our task, for the sake of future generations, is to provide the political will needed for the great transition.
The wonderful encyclical Laudato Si’ of Pope Francis shows us our moral responsibility for protecting the long-term future of nature and humankind, and it can give us courage as we approach this great and urgent task.
The Reason for Urgency
The scientific community is unanimous in telling us that if we do not rapidly switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, there is a danger that global warming will pass a tipping point beyond which uncontrollable feedback loops will lead to drastically increased temperatures, and perhaps a human-caused 6th geological extinction event. An important short video on this danger has been prepared by Thom Hartmann and coworkers, and is available on the following link:
Here is a link to short interview with Sir David Attenborough, which is also very interesting, although he does not mention the worst possibilities:
For those readers who have time to look at longer presentations, here are some other links:
Is a Shift to 100% Renewable Energy Possible?
One answer to the question of whether a shift to 100% renewable energy is possible is that it has to happen during this century because fossil fuels are running out. Within a century or so they will be gone in the sense that they will be much too expensive to be burned. Therefore, a shift to 100% renewable energy has to happen within about a hundred years.
The vitally important point is that if the shift does not happen quickly, if we do not leave most of our fossil fuels in the ground instead of burning them, we risk a climatic disaster of enormous proportions, perhaps comparable to the Permian-Triasic thermal maximum. Thus the shift must happen, and will happen. But we must work with dedication, and a sense of urgency, to make it happen soon.
What Are the Forms of Renewable Energy?
The main forms of renewable energy now in use are wind power; hydropower; solar energy; biomass; biofuel; geothermal energy; and marine energy. In addition, there are a number of new technologies under development, such as artificial photosynthesis, cellulostic ethanol, and hydrogenation of CO2.
At present, the average global rate of use of primary energy is roughly 2 kilowatts per person. In North America, the rate is 12 kilowatts per capita, while in Europe, the figure is 6 kilowatts. In Bangladesh, it is only 0.2 kilowatts. This wide variation implies that considerable energy savings are possible, through changes in lifestyle, and through energy efficiency.
Biomass, wind energy, hydropower and wave power derive their energy indirectly from the sun, but in addition, various methods are available for utilizing the power of sunlight directly. These include photovoltaic panels, solar designs in architecture, solar systems for heating water and cooking, concentrating photovoltaic systems, and solar thermal power plants.
Solar photovoltaic cells are thin-coated wafers of a semiconducting material (usually silicon). The coatings on the two sides are respectively charge donors and charge acceptors. Cells of this type are capable of trapping solar energy and converting it into direct-current electricity. The electricity generated in this way can be used directly (as it is, for example, in pocket calculators) or it can be fed into a general power grid. Alternatively, it can be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The gases can then be compressed and stored, or exported for later use in fuel cells. In the future, we may see solar photovoltaic arrays in sun-rich desert areas producing hydrogen as an export product.
The cost of manufacturing photovoltaic cells is currently falling rapidly. The cost in 2006 was $4.50 per peak watt. It is predicted that by 2017, the manufacturing cost will have fallen to $0.36 per watt.
Concentrating photovoltaic systems are able to lower costs still further by combining silicon solar cells with reflectors that concentrate the sun’s rays. The most inexpensive type of concentrating reflector consists of a flat piece of aluminum-covered plastic material bent into a curved shape along one of its dimensions, forming a trough-shaped surface. (Something like this shape results when we hold a piece of paper at the top and bottom with our two hands, allowing the center to sag.) The axis of the reflector can be oriented so that it points towards the North Star. A photovoltaic array placed along the focal line will then receive concentrated sunlight throughout the day.
Photovoltaic efficiency is defined as the ratio of the electrical power produced by a cell to the solar power striking its surface. For commercially available cells today, this ratio is between 9% and 14%. If we assume 5 hours of bright sunlight per day, this means that a photocell in a desert area near to the equator (where 1 kW/m2 of peak solar power reaches the earth’s surface) can produce electrical energy at the average rate of 20-30 We /m2 , the average being taken over an entire day and night. (The subscript e means “in the form of electricity”. Energy in the form of heat is denoted by the subscript t, meaning “thermal”.) The potential power per unit area for photovoltaic systems is far greater than for biomass. However, the mix of renewable energy sources most suitable for a particular country depends on many factors.
Wind parks in favorable locations, using modern wind turbines, are able to generate 10 MWe /km2 or 10 We /m2 . Often wind farms are placed in offshore locations. When they are on land, the area between the turbines can be utilized for other purposes, for example for pasturage. For a country like Denmark, with good wind potential but cloudy skies, wind turbines can be expected to play a more important future role than photovoltaics. Denmark is already a world leader both in manufacturing and in using wind turbines. In the United States, wind power is the fastest-growing form of electricity generation.
The location of wind parks is important, since the energy obtainable from wind is proportional to the cube of the wind velocity. We can understand this cubic relationship by remembering that the kinetic energy of a moving object is proportional to the square of its velocity multiplied by the mass. Since the mass of air moving past a wind turbine is proportional to the wind velocity, the result is the cubic relationship just mentioned.
Before the decision is made to locate a wind park in a particular place, the wind velocity is usually carefully measured and recorded over an entire year. For locations on land, mountain passes are often very favorable locations, since wind velocities increase with altitude, and since the wind is concentrated in the passes by the mountain barrier. Other favorable locations include shorelines and offshore locations on sand bars. This is because onshore winds result when warm air rising from land heated by the sun is replaced by cool marine air. Depending on the season, the situation may be reversed at night, and an offshore wind may be produced if the water is warmer than the land.
The cost of wind-generated electrical power is currently lower than the cost of electricity generated by burning fossil fuels. The “energy payback ratio” of a power installation is defined as the ratio of the energy produced by the installation over its lifetime, divided by the energy required to manufacture, construct, operate and decommission the installation. For wind turbines, this ratio is 17-39, compared with 11 for coal-burning plants. The construction energy of a wind turbine is usually paid back within three months.
Wind energy is currently able to deliver 370,000 megawatts of power, and the global installed wind generating capacity is increasing at the rate of 20% per year.
Biomass is defined as any energy source based on biological materials produced by photosynthesis, for example wood, sugar beets, rapeseed oil, crop wastes, dung, urban organic wastes, processed sewage, etc. Using biomass for energy does not result in the net emission of CO2 , since the CO2 released by burning the material had previously been absorbed from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. If the biological material had decayed instead of being burned, it would have released the same amount of CO2 as in the burning process.
Miscanthus is a grassy plant found in Asia and Africa. Some forms will also grow in Northern Europe, and it is being considered as an energy crop in the United Kingdom. Miscanthus can produce up to 18 dry tonnes per hectare-year, and it has the great advantage that it can be cultivated using ordinary farm machinery. The woody stems are very suitable for burning, since their water content is low (20-30%).
Jatropha is a fast-growing woody shrub about 4 feet in height, whose seeds can be used to produce diesel oil at the cost of about $43 per barrel. The advantage of Jatropha is that is a hardy plant, requiring very little fertilizer and water. It has a life of roughly 50 years, and can grow on wasteland that is unsuitable for other crops. The Indian State Railway has planted 7.5 million Jatropha shrubs beside its right of way. The oil harvested from these plants is used to fuel the trains.
For some southerly countries, honge oil, derived from the plant Pongamia pinnata may prove to be a promising source of biomass energy. Studies conducted by Dr. Udishi Shrinivasa at the Indian Institute of Sciences in Bangalore indicate that honge oil can be produced at the cost of $150 per ton. This price is quite competitive when compared with other potential fuel oils.
Recent studies have also focused on a species of algae that has an oil content of up to 50%. Algae can be grown in desert areas, where cloud cover is minimal. Farm waste and excess CO2 from factories can be used to speed the growth of the algae.
It is possible that in the future, scientists will be able to create new species of algae that use the sun’s energy to generate hydrogen gas. If this proves to be possible, the hydrogen gas may then be used to generate electricity in fuel cells. Promising research along this line is already in progress at the University of California, Berkeley.
Biogas is defined as the mixture of gases produced by the anaerobic digestion of organic matter. This gas, which is rich in methane (CH4 ), is produced in swamps and landfills, and in the treatment of organic wastes from farms and cities. The use of biogas as a fuel is important not only because it is a valuable energy source, but also because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, which should not be allowed to reach the atmosphere. Biogas produced from farm wastes can be used locally on the farm, for cooking and heating, etc. When biogas has been sufficiently cleaned so that it can be distributed in a pipeline, it is known as “renewable natural gas”. It may then be distributed in the natural gas grid, or it can be compressed and used in internal combustion engines. Renewable natural gas can also be used in fuel cells.
Biofuels are often classified according to their generation. Those that can be used alternatively as food are called first-generation biofuels. By contrast, biofuels of the second generation are those that make use of crop residues or other cellulose-rich materials. Cellulose molecules are long chains of sugars, and by breaking the inter-sugar bonds in the chain using enzymes or other methods, the sugars can be freed for use in fermentation. In this way lignocellulosic ethanol is produced. The oil-producing and hydrogen-producing algae mentioned above are examples of third-generation biofuels. We should notice that growing biofuels locally (even first-generation ones) may be of great benefit to smallholders in developing countries, since they can achieve local energy self-reliance in this way.
The ultimate source of geothermal energy is the decay of radioactive nuclei in the interior of the earth. Because of the heat produced by this radioactive decay, the temperature of the earth’s core is 4300 degrees C. The inner core is composed of solid iron, while the outer core consists of molten iron and sulfur compounds. Above the core is the mantle, which consists of a viscous liquid containing compounds of magnesium, iron, aluminum, silicon and oxygen.
The temperature of the mantle gradually decreases from 3700 degrees C near the core to 1000 degrees C near the crust. The crust of the earth consists of relatively light solid rocks and it varies in thickness from 5 to 70 km. The outward flow of heat from radioactive decay produces convection currents in the interior of the earth. These convection currents, interacting with the earth’s rotation, produce patterns of flow similar to the trade winds of the atmosphere. One result of the currents of molten conducting material in the interior of the earth is the earth’s magnetic field.
The crust is divided into large sections called “tectonic plates”, and the currents of molten material in the interior of the earth also drag the plates into collision with each other. At the boundaries, where the plates collide or split apart, volcanic activity occurs. Volcanic regions near the tectonic plate boundaries are the best sites for collection of geothermal energy.
The entire Pacific Ocean is ringed by regions of volcanic and earthquake activity, the so-called Ring of Fire. This ring extends from Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America, northward along the western coasts of both South America and North America to Alaska. The ring then crosses the Pacific at the line formed by the Aleutian Islands, and it reaches the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. From there it extends southward along the Kuril Island chain and across Japan to the Philippine Islands, Indonesia and New Zealand. Many of the islands of the Pacific are volcanic in nature.
Another important region of volcanic activity extends northward along the Rift Valley of Africa to Turkey, Greece and Italy. In the Central Atlantic region, two tectonic plates are splitting apart, thus producing the volcanic activity of Iceland. All of these regions are very favorable for the collection of geothermal power.
Economic and Political Considerations
In our present situation, a rapid shift to renewable energy could present the world with many benefits. Ecological constraints and depletion of natural resources mean that industrial growth will very soon no longer be possible. Thus we will be threatened with economic recession and unemployment. A rapid shift to renewable energy could provide the needed jobs to replace lost jobs in (for example) automobile production. Renewable energy is becoming competitive with fossil fuels, and thus it represents a huge investment opportunity.
On the other hand, fossil fuel companies have a vested interest in monitizing the assets that they own, as Thom Hartmann points out in the video mentioned at the start of this essay. Institute Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT also explains this difficulty very well at the start of the following video:
These considerations point to a battle that will have to be fought by the people of the world who are concerned about the long-term future of human civilization and the biosphere, against the vested interests of our oligarchic rulers. This fight will require wide public discussion of the dangers of runaway climate change. At present, our corporate-controlled mass media hardly mention the long-term dangers, such as the methane hydrate feedback loop, so the battle will have to be fought in the alternative media.
John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century http://www.learndev.org/dl/Crisis21-Avery.pdf.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 10 Aug 2015.
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