Energy in a Changing Climate

 Copyright © Martin Nicholson 2013
 Although my university education was in electrical science and engineering, I have spent much of my life running businesses. A couple of years ago, I left the big city where I had lived and worked for 30 years to move to the rural/coastal area of far north New South Wales in Australia. I share my new neighbourhood with hard working small commercial farmers and others seeking an alternative lifestyle; drawn to being self-sufficient and eco-friendly. Both groups are very aware of the threat of global warming but continue to rely on their motor vehicles and electricity to power their homes and farms with little apparent regard for the relationship between the two. The conservationists see the problem of global warming as urgent and solved by renewable energy. The farmers are concerned but just want to keep on farming and both groups want to hang on to their personal transport as they consider it a necessity in the “bush”.

Meeting some of these new neighbours with their roof solar panels and batteries and no grid electricity started me thinking about other ways of living. Maybe we didn’t need base-load electricity after all. As we will see later, low cost, reliable, base-load power is a challenge for solar and wind renewable energy (although this is sometimes refuted by advocates of solar and wind power). Anyway, I quickly stopped dreaming and realised these people wouldn’t have their solar panels, batteries and motor vehicles or their refrigerators, gas cookers or computers without cheap mass production. Cheap mass production needs plenty of low cost 24 by 7 electricity and, today, low cost 24 by 7 electricity means 24 by 7 power stations using, in most places, non-renewable, often fossil fuel, energy sources. Fossil fuel energy means greenhouse gas emissions and greenhouse gases means global warming.

In a little over 150 years, burning fossil fuels has given us cheap, readily available electricity and mechanisation. These have both delivered human welfare advancements in the developed world including improved life expectancy, better health care, personal mobility, intellectual opportunity, universal access to information and egalitarianism. Without the high energy density of coal and oil many of these advances would not have been possible.

Global warming has been one of the most talked about subjects in recent years. You can’t open a newspaper without finding some story on climate change and how it needs to be solved and when. Most stories seem to understand that energy use is a key part of both the problem and the solution but there seems to be little understanding about the limitations of some energy sources, the maturity of new energy technology, and the economic consequences of some of the solutions. Over the next few years politicians are going to be making critical decisions about climate change that could have substantial impact on both our economy and the future of our planet.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has had a big influence on the climate change debate. The press has widely reported what the IPCC has had to say about global warming and the possible impact on the Earth’s environment at various stabilisation levels of greenhouse gases. Less familiar seems to be the extensive IPCC work on how to go about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC is the best consensus of the scientific evidence about climate change. It has done a detailed critique of the short and long term mitigation potential for various energy related sectors using the same scientific rigour applied to the critique of the environmental impact of climate change. I rely on much of this work in this book when discussing technology and the future of energy.

Just a few centuries ago energy use was simple. Populations were much smaller and people burned wood and peat for heating and cooking and there was no mass production. All energy was renewable and largely sustainable. In the last 300 years or so we have added coal, oil and gas to the fuels we burn for heating, lighting, cooking and to run factories and motor vehicles. The trouble is, burning fuel creates greenhouse gases that scientists tell us are changing our climate. On top of that, the new fuels we are burning are non-renewable and won’t last forever.

There is a very close relationship between energy use and production. Over the last 40 years, energy use in the developed world has doubled. Over the same period energy use in the developing world has quadrupled. Despite this quadrupling in the developing world (with a corresponding growth in production), world poverty persists. Demand for more and more energy will continue throughout the world, particularly in the developing countries like China and India who strive to match the level of production and standard of living in the developed world. Without plenty of low cost energy the world economy is threatened.

40 years ago very few individuals seriously worried about climate change. Even fewer individuals worried about running out of oil or any other fuel. Now the development of future energy will be driven by two key events: Peak Oil and human induced climate change. Although technically unrelated (neither caused the other) these events have much in common. They became common knowledge about the same time (in the first decade of the 21st century); they have the potential to have a big impact on energy use and cost and there is scientific uncertainty about the extent of their impact. We only have limited supplies of oil, coal, natural gas and uranium. There are many arguments about how long the supplies will last but they will all run out eventually. For coal and uranium it might be well into the 22nd century, or even longer, before they run out. For oil and natural gas it may well be in this century. Judging by the sharp oil price increase over the last couple of years, oil production may be already struggling to meet the growth in demand.

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the long term, significant changes to energy will be necessary in most countries. This may require fundamental changes in behaviour for both consumers and industry. We can make some reductions in energy use in the short term at low cost by finding ways to reduce our energy consumption without reducing production. As consumers we can be choosey about what we buy and how much energy it uses. We can buy more efficient cars; we can buy low-energy appliances. We can turn things off when we don’t need them and we can drive our cars less often. Large-scale emissions reduction on the other hand will require a major rethink about the energy sources we use and how we convert them into the common forms we are all used to: electricity, piped or bottled gas, heating oil, petrol (gasoline), diesel and other transport fuels.

Because of the growing demand for energy, particularly from the developing world, using less energy is not going to be a complete solution to climate change or peak oil unless we think that the developing world doesn’t need or deserve the standard of living that we in the developed world enjoy. We need to find ways to produce energy differently and to make better use of it – to improve the amount of value we get from the energy we use. We need new technology break-throughs. Some conservationists believe we have all the technology we need now. I disagree. Much of the change will need to come from government led reforms that target low carbon energy and energy efficiency. We have plenty of technology ideas to help like energy storage (which is an important component for solar and wind power) but we still require significant financial investment to change some of these ideas into cost competitive commercial realities. We need our governments to actively encourage the development of new clean energy technologies because private industry won’t do it on its own in the time required.

There are widely differing views about solutions to energy and climate change. Some conservationists see the problem as relatively straight forward requiring deep cuts in emissions now by improving energy efficiency, energy conservation and using only renewable resources. Many energy industry engineers and scientists see the problem as being much more involved. In this book I look at what still needs to be done before we can return to an all renewable energy economy, as we will eventually, and why using renewable energy sources is not quite as simple as it seems. I also look at the impact of aggressive emissions reduction targets that demand emissions reductions before we have the technology in place. I consider and reference recent works published on energy use and climate change by the International Energy Agency (IEA), Greenpeace, consultants McKinsey and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). If we, either privately or publicly, are to advocate very aggressive targets it would be valuable to understand what the world impact of that might be for both the environment and the economy.

The book is structured in three parts:
· Part 1 gives a straight forward overview of our primary energy sources and how we utilise them.
· Part 2 discusses the changing climate. This is not just the weather climate but the changing political, economic and engineering climate that surrounds energy. I discuss peak oil and its impact on the supply of our principal source of energy. I also discuss technologies that may help us move to an all renewable energy future.
· Part 3 looks at the future of energy and suggests a roadmap for surviving with much less oil and progressively weaning ourselves off non-renewable coal and gas and at the same time saving the planet from global warming.

I explore terms used liberally in the press, on radio and on TV such as “renewable energy”, “base-load power”, “peak oil”, “biofuels”, “global warming”, “greenhouse gas emissions”, “energy security”, “emissions trading”, “carbon taxes” and “carbon offsets”. I look at ways we can all save energy in our homes, workplaces and on the road. I also explore the thorny issue of nuclear energy. You can dip in and out of this book. You don’t have to read it from cover to cover. For those that want to use the book as a reference source, I have included a comprehensive index.

Australia has been an interesting place to write this book. It is one of the world’s major uranium suppliers and yet does not use nuclear power. It is also one of the sunniest places in the world but gets less than 1% of its electricity from solar power. It has the highest emissions of greenhouse gases per person of all the OECD countries; partly because 80% of its electricity is generated by coal; partly because it is a major mineral exporter and mining uses vast amounts of energy and partly because Australia is almost as big as the US with less than 10% of the population.

I believe we should embark on a path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that does not require us all to make drastic changes to our lifestyle as some have advocated. Such drastic changes would not be politically acceptable in most countries and would probably never be implemented. I have aimed to provide a balanced and realistic review of all aspects of energy including its impact on climate change. I have no association with any vested interest in the energy or climate change debate so any biases are my own. As you go through the book, you will see that there are no simple solutions to changing the way we use energy, as some would have us believe, and there is no one solution to the problem but with a realistic balance between risk to the environment and the risk to our social structure there is still hope for the future.

Martin Nicholson 2008