August 2014- Beyond Climate Change by Eric Forsyth
The possibility of severe climate change in this century is now taken seriously by many world governments, even by the US, which has been in denial until recently. The relationship of climate change with the fossil-fuel age is both complicated and paradoxical. Clearly, burning fossil-fuel for the past two hundred years has liberated billions of tons of ancient carbon which was captured in coal and oil, much of which has made its way into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. The complicated part is to figure out the effect of this gas on our climate. Some of the worst scenarios include rising sea water levels and crop failures. Paradoxically when we stop burning fossil-fuel we will stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide already discharged into the air will not go away in a hurry and so the effects will be present during the time frame that we convert to the post fossil-fuel age. Fuel reserves are not going to run out soon or suddenly disappear. Energy companies are very clever about finding new reserves or extending the life of old discoveries. But inevitably the reserves of fossil-fuel will diminish and one day in the future we will reach the end of the fossil-fuel age. Although the problem of dealing with the effects of climate change remains to be solved, the end of the fossil-fuel age then raises an even bigger challenge; can our way of life be sustained without fossil-fuel?
The fossil-fuel age began in a modest way in Lancashire, England, when cotton mill owners used coal to power early steam engines. Although they did not realize it at the time, they kicked off two centuries of energy exploitation that led us to where we are now; billions of people living lives of affluence and comfort supported entirely by the consumption of a resource that is not going to be replaced any time soon. And, of course, there are billions of people who don’t lead lives of affluence and comfort but certainly want to. I am not the first to question our profligate use of an unsustainable resource; the green movement aims to replace the use of fossil-fuel with other sources of energy and at same time fix the collateral damage caused when the fuel is burnt; the molecular bonds formed during millions of years are being broken to release the stored chemical energy in a few hundred years, to the detriment of the atmosphere and what follows from that. Many initiatives have been started to develop alternative energy sources mostly triggered by concern over climate change. These initiatives will fall far short of what will be needed when the world has depleted the fossil-fuel reserves because they had a different objective; to slow global warming. The goal was primarily to eliminate harmful emissions, not live without the fuel in question. For example carbon sequestration still assumes coal will be burnt but what happens when it is gone?
NOW IS THE TIME TO START THINKING
The end of the fossil-fuel age will radically change our way of life in the US and other developed countries. To minimize the effect of the change and avoid social chaos, if not outright war, we must seriously consider an event that may occur as soon as a hundred years from now. That is not as long as it seems; about three human generations. People are alive today in 2014 who were born before World War I started in 1914. Let me draw an analogy with the myth of the lemmings. When the population exceeded the ability of their resources to feed them they are supposed to have engaged in collective suicide by falling off a cliff. Picture yourself a lemming surrounded by your mates running pell-mell towards certain death. What’s going through you mind? It is certainly not the rational decision that you ought to make a sharp turn before it is too late. Your mind is overwhelmed by the herd instinct, possibly even triggered by a chemical stimulant. If somehow you made a life-saving move and enough lemmings followed you then the whole exercise is a failure – the original problem of over exploitation of the limited resources would still exist, and Mother Nature’s way of solving it would have been thwarted. This is where the analogy with the human race fails; we have developed enough intelligence to appreciate the problem and the possible consequences of any solution we may attempt. Of course, humans are not immune to the herd instinct; think of Germany in the 1930s or China in the 1950s. There is a school of thought that believes Mother Nature’s experiment to permit the evolution of species with superior intelligence was a mistake anyway, maybe the looming crisis over fossil-fuel is Her way of reducing the infestation. This is why we need to start thinking about making that sharp turn as soon as possible, although I admit that arguing by analogy is fallacious.
There are very few catastrophes that can affect the whole human race on the entire planet. Sixty million years ago an asteroid impact eliminated most of the dinosaurs and if something like that occurred in the near future I suspect we would suffer the same fate. For that reason NASA spends a few million dollars a year tracking celestial objects whose orbit may bring them close to earth. The forecast is probably only accurate for a few years ahead – there are many objects out there in deep space that are very hard to detect until they are much closer to our planet. Scenarios have been investigated to deflect such incoming disasters, but there have been few studies of how to mitigate the actual impact of one because the devastating consequences of a large impact will occur so quickly that there is no feasible defense. The exhaustion of the planet’s fossil-fuel reserves in the near future is a far more likely event than the arrival of a massive meteorite in the same time-frame, it too will affect the entire human race, but ameliorating the consequences is where we must bring our intelligence to bear because the consequences of burning our last bits of fossil-fuel will occur in slow motion, adaptation is possible.
There is another reason to start serious thinking now about the looming crisis; the infrastructure of the western civilization powered in large part by fossil-fuel took a couple of hundred years to develop and build. We probably don’t have that much time to replace it. Some pretty heavy R&D will be needed to support solutions for the type of life we will hope to live when fossil-fuel is something you will only find in a museum. The financial ramifications of replacing the existing fossil-fuel infrastructure will probably set a limit on the rate that changes can be made although rebuilding the US will generate a massive amount of economic activity. We need to initiate serious and deep studies of what our civilization will be like when the post fossil-fuel era begins. We don’t need to actually run out of fuel in order to speculate now what the future life would be like and what infrastructure is needed to support it. In fact by defining this new way of life we get pointers to what we must start developing now. For example, will the suburban model of dispersed homes be viable or will our descendants mostly live vertically in dense cities? How will remote communities get energy if portable fuel become almost non-existent? Will there be air transportation? Will ships go back to using sail to the detriment of the volume of international trade? Will the internet survive or even expand? There are thousands of questions to be considered if we postulate that the underlying lynchpin of fossil-fuel has gone. Every segment of our society should be combed for ideas; scientists, engineers, architects, teachers, doctors, lawyers, bankers, anthropologists, farmers, writers, philosophers, historians, social workers, the military, the police and, crucially, politicians. I have omitted a few professions whose contribution I believe may be negative, you can figure out which. Doubtless many good ideas would emerge about what people would want in the changing world, but the main advantage would be to get the idea home that the world is going to change, and drastically.
Let’s look at some rough numbers; assume all our fossil-fuel was made over a hundred million years, and now at the early part of twenty-first century , approximately two hundred years after those mill owners fired up the first boilers, we have consumed half of the reserves, then we have another two hundred years left. This is probably wildly optimistic because the other luckless inhabitants of the planet, remember them, who don’t use their share are going to demand it, and energy consumption will be much higher per year as we pass the half-way point. Still, in two hundred years let’s say we are going to consume the energy that was stored over fifty million years, or each year we will burn energy that took a quarter million years to accumulate. This is the demand that alternative energy sources must meet, using input energy that comes almost entirely from the sun. Can we really produce immediately available stored fuel at a rate 250,000 times faster than Mother Nature did originally? Probably not. Clearly energy use per capita is going to plummet, either by reducing the energy or the population, or both. I have discussed this dilemma with many intelligent people, they usually point to the steps taken in the about the last twenty years; wind and photovoltaic generation, fusion power, wind and tide generation, biomass production, to mention a few. I will try to show while they may slow climate change, the depletion of fossil fuel is a far bigger problem to solve.
Wind power is one of the most developed of the alternative energy sources, the problem is that, as any sailboat sailor knows, the wind fluctuates frequently in both strength and direction. Electricity generators hooked up to a wind turbine will thus produce a variable output, but one of the pillars of our western civilization is an electrical supply of exceptional reliability, and stable voltage and frequency. The only reason the existing wind generators work is that they are connected to a massive grid powered by conventional fossil fuel, hydro and nuclear sources. If, in the future, fossil-fuel plants disappear, wind generation could not make up the difference and maintain the quality standards we now expect unless coupled with massive development of electrical transmission and the ability to store huge amounts of energy. In my opinion the hoopla promoting wind power is misleading, we will find the billions of dollars spent may have slowed down climate change a little but will not solve the problem of living without fossil fuel. The intermittent nature of sunlight raises the same constraint concerning photovoltaic power production.
There is another problem; less than half of total energy use is electrical, so generating electric power does not solve the problem even if some users could be converted to electricity, cars for example. Biomass is an alternative energy source using the sun to raise crops that can be burnt to produce energy, rather like the way Mother Nature did it originally, but skipping the hundred million years of baking and pressurizing. An example is ethanol. In Brazil, which lies close to the equator, ethanol has significantly displaced gasoline. In the US, being much colder, the energy to produce ethanol balances out the savings, and land and water have been removed from food cultivation. This highlights a defect in our system of government; how do technically ignorant legislators and politicians make the right decisions in the face of slick lobbyists? Algae grown at sea to produce oil has a precedent. Before the discovery of subterranean oil and the production of kerosene, most lamps used whale oil, also grown at sea. Typically, we humans almost hunted whales to extinction, analogous to what we will do to oil.
Nuclear power does not use energy derived from the sun, the energy locked up in heavy elements was made when stars collapsed billions of years ago, clumps of them landed on earth as it was formed, but they are a finite resource. Our present nuclear reactors are dinosaurs, analogous to the steam engines that the mill owners installed when the age of fossil-fuel exploitation began. Far more efficient reactors are possible, and they would produce little nuclear waste, but the public’s visceral fear of nuclear energy must be allayed. The present generation of reactors, operating for more than forty years, have resulted in the accidental deaths of far fewer people than any other form of energy production.
Fusion power is often touted as the great white hope, as I have said; generation of electricity does not in itself solve the energy problem. I have thirty-five years’ experience with large particle accelerators at a National Laboratory in the US, the technology is similar in some ways to a fusion reactor. In my opinion the present concepts of fusion reactors will not be economically or technically viable even if the prototypes now under construction do manage to produce more power than it takes to run them, which has not happened yet. At the very least it is foolish to count on fusion reactors providing unlimited energy in the foreseeable future. Other candidates to produce electricity are devices that harness the energy in ocean waves and tides. Such a system has been operating on the river Rance in France for decades, it is massive for the amount of energy produced. And as any boat owners knows; objects immersed in the sea rapidly accumulate barnacles, weeds and other parasites that degrade performance unless thoroughly maintained, not to mention damage from storms. More than half of the sites in the US suitable for hydroelectric dams have already been exploited and produce about 7% of our electric power.
A PATH TO THE FUTURE
Many solutions have been proposed to meet the energy problem, and doubtless many more will emerge in the years we have left. There must be a way to evaluate all these proposals and decide on the best way to invest our efforts and finances. I suggest the Sufficiency Factor, defined as:
Sufficiency Factor (SF) = non-fossil-fuel energy available/ energy required to sustain the desired standard of living
This factor will be radically different for each country and will vary with time as alternative sources are brought on line. The goal is to make the factor unity. When it is unity for the whole world we have reached a sustainable way of life. The upper line of the SF ratio, the numerator, corresponds to a measure of changes in the way we do things – replacing gasoline with ethanol, for example. The lower line, the denominator, corresponds to making do with less, in effect, conservation.
The factor provides a means of assessing the contribution that is made by each development in order to achieve unity. In addition, each contribution can be priced, so that the most economical path to the goal can be found. For example, there are many proposed ways to generate electric energy without using fossil-fuel; wind, solar, tidal, etc. By setting a common standard of performance that all designs must meet, each path can be evaluated and the contribution to the factor figured out. It will probably be found that some ideas improve the factor less substantially than others. This gives a choice as to where the development money must be spent.
So what is the current SF for the US? Statistics are published every year by the government of the energy used by every segment of industry. Calculating the SF can be tricky and no doubt, if adopted, could provide grist for many an academic mill. Major non-fossil sources of energy are hydroelectric power and nuclear electric power. Some factories burn their own waste products such as wood and a small percentage of households burn wood for heat. Without bothering too much about the details we find the SF is about 0.15; only 15 percent of our energy use comes from non-fossil sources. Now consider a very popular idea; suppose half our automobiles are designed to run on electricity which is provided by renewable means, such as the wind. This would be a significant technical challenge, but if accomplished what would be the impact on the SF? Oil demand is down, electricity demand is up by the same amount of energy but, of course, from a renewable source. Depending on many highly simplistic assumptions the SF would improve to about 0.2, still a long way to go for self-sufficiency. A more comprehensive analysis would include the element of time, such a sweeping technical change would take decades, with the SF changing year by year.
If coal-fired plants are replaced by advanced nuclear reactors, and assuming that the total energy demand stays the same, the effect of this substitution would raise the SF to 0.4, a significant step. If this change did actually take place it would occupy most of the 21st century, an indication of how difficult and expensive replacing the existing infrastructure is going to be. Before the first breeder reactor could come on-line an intensive R&D program would have to be implemented.
The 800 lb. gorilla lurking in the denominator is the almost total dependence of transportation on oil. How do we get that to shift? As mentioned earlier some automobiles could run on electricity, but whether that improves the SF depends on how that electric energy is generated. Rail could be completely electrified, the power coming from the greatly increased number of nuclear plants suggested above. Some transportation cannot be electrified, ships and planes, for example. This area seems like a candidate for an oil substitute which would retain the portability of oil by-products, possibly fuel from biomass or gases such as hydrogen. The Defence Department is a large oil user, perhaps the increasing use of drones signifies a move away from gas gobblers such as planes and tanks. Industry accounts for over 20% of oil use in the production of a wide range of products such as plastic, fertilizers, paint, synthetic rubber, etc.
The 800 lb. gorilla is not going to disappear in one piece, rather it could be chopped up into thousands of ingenious substitutes which do not use fossil-fuel. Most of which would have to be developed and could be competitive as increasing scarcity and price of oil forces a shift due to market forces. The effect of all this activity on the SF would be to move components from the denominator to the numerator, the decreasing use of oil will reduce the denominator and thus improve the SF. Dealing with the effects of climate change will probably require plenty of energy and so will complicate the transition by adding to the denominator.
The remaining fossil-fuel influencing the SF is natural gas, finding a substitute will be difficult; more than 20% of electricity in the US is generated using natural gas and this source of power gives the system operators flexibility to make rapid changes to match the demand. Coal and nuclear plants are base loaded- the output remains essentially constant or changes slowly because of the thermal inertia of boiling water. If a significant proportion of electric power is generated by wind or solar in the future this puts an even greater onus on the other generating sources to respond quickly. Finding a replacement for gas-fired generators will be a tough problem to overcome in the quest for self-sufficiency. About 30% of natural gas is used for heating buildings, if the nuclear reactor substitution is implemented most heating could be electrical and thus benefit the SF.
One country is getting close to SF equal unity – Iceland. The country is blessed with vast geothermal energy which has been harnessed to provide almost all of their electrical and heating needs. The only import is oil and gasoline for transportation, but they are working on it. It is hoped in the future to power vehicles from hydrogen produced by electrolysis from water. This would leave only their airline and ships requiring fossil-fuel. Of course, this solution is not available to most countries and the downside for Icelanders is volcanic eruptions and terrible winters. Iceland uses an electricity surplus to refine aluminium from bauxite shipped in from abroad. An example that indicates geopolitics will be greatly influenced by countries which still possess abundant energy as the fossil-fuel age wanes.
No one can predict the future; too many random events such as wars, natural disasters and new inventions and discoveries complicate the task. If there are any historians around in a thousand years’ time I am sure they will divide the story of the human race into three periods; pre and post the fossil-fuel age and the fossil-fuel age itself, which only lasted a few hundred years. It would be seen as an age of extraordinary development, mass education, mass consumption and mass destruction, how it ended is up to us and our immediate descendants.
Mr Forsyth gained a B.Sc from Manchester University, UK, in 1953 and M.A.Sc degree from Toronto University in 1961, both in electrical engineering. He is a Fellow of the Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, which in 2007 presented him with the Herman Halperin Award, its highest recognition for contributions to Power Transmission Development. He worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the US for thirty-five years and served as Chair of the Accelerator Development Department. Since retirement in 1995 he has spent much of his time on his sailboat, Fiona. He has circumnavigated the world twice and sailed to both Polar Regions. This has given him the chance to observe climate change first hand and also witness the changing energy needs in countries he has visited over several decades. In 2000 he was presented with the Blue Water Medal by the Cruising Club of America which makes this award annually to one amateur sailor worldwide for a meritorious example of seamanship. As a young man he flew the first jet fighters introduced into the RAF. He holds a Commercial Pilot’s License and a US Coast Guard Captain’s License.