26 April 2013 – In this must read article of recent times, The Atlantic’s What if we never run out of oil?, canvassed the likely energy scenario that is likely to cosign our planet to the front burner, and the radical shift needed to avoid this.
The 10,900 word report is a wake up call to the need for political action ahead of waiting around for economic drivers or even the natural progression of technological development to save this planet.
We’ve had major energy transitions already, they have been effective, but slow, says author Charles C Mann.
“The sort of rapid energy transition we need has never occurred before,” Mann says.
“At the same time, one should note that no physical law says these transitions must be slow.
“Societies have changed rapidly, even when it cost a lot of money.
“Nobody can predict the future, but it is dumbfounding to hear left and right alike bemoaning the ‘reality’ that society cannot change, particularly at a time when both sides are bemoaning the consequences of convulsive social change.”
Some highlights from the report include:
Environmentalists are not enthusiastic about the prospect of replacing coal with gas, because methane has a much greater capacity to trap solar heat than carbon dioxide does.
To environmentalists, natural gas is a bridge fuel, a substitute for coal and oil that will serve until—but only until—the world can move to zero-carbon energy sources: sunlight, wind, tides, waves, and geothermal heat.
The grid as busy airport
Modern electrical grids are in some ways like busy airports, with sweaty controllers staring at monitors, feverishly adjusting power outputs from big plants to the capricious swirls of human demand for airconditioning, baseboard heating, and microwave popcorn.
As more and more energy comes from sun, wind, tides, and other variable sources, the problem of balancing fluctuating supply and fluctuating demand will worsen.
When renewables supply 20 to 30 percent of all electricity, many utility-energy engineers predict, the system will no longer be able to balance supply and demand. Brownouts will ripple across the landscape; control centers will call up big companies and beg them to turn off the lights; managers of ultrasensitive modern control centers will watch in horror as voltage drops lead to factory shutdowns.
(Germany, a leader in renewable-energy use, is already facing this situation.) To ask utilities to take in large amounts of solar power—electricity generated by hundreds or thousands of small installations, many on neighborhood roofs and lawns, whose output is affected by clouds—is like asking a shipping firm to replace its huge, professionally staffed container ships with squadrons of canoes paddled by random adolescents.
Other renewables can be more reliable than power from the sun, to be sure, but all are costlier than petroleum and hard to fit into today’s grid. Natural gas, from this point of view, seems like the perfect stopgap.
The clash occurs when renewables are ready for prime time—and natural gas is still hanging around like an old and dirty but reliable car, still cheap to produce and use, after shale fracking is replaced globally by undersea mining of methane hydrate.
Revamping the electrical grid from conventionals like coal and oil to accommodate unconventionals like natural gas and solar power will be enormously difficult, economically and technically.
Facilities must be constructed to store extra energy for dark, windless days; transmission lines will need to be built to move power from warm places like New Mexico to cold places like New England; grids will have to be reworked to allow small energy producers to share directly with neighbors rather than being forced to pump everything into large power centers.
All of this will be a burden on businesses and consumers alike. But it must be done to avert climate change, because electricity generation is responsible for about a third of America’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Roughly similar figures hold true in other developed nations.
Most oil specialists agree that humankind is naturally progressing toward a no-carbon energy future.
Our species has already moved from wood to coal to oil to gas, each fuel burning cleaner than its predecessor. Wind, solar, and other renewables are obvious next steps.
The problem, scientists say, is that climate change is happening too quickly. Instead of evolving over decades, as happened with the building of the electrical grid, the changeover to renewables has to occur now, faster than any change before.
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