The challenges now facing the world’s energy systems are arguably far greater than those of the 1970s energy crisis, and most available evidence suggests that they are about to get more daunting still.
The vulnerabilities of our current energy system stem mostly from its reliance primarily on fossil fuels: nonrenewable, depleting resources that, when burned, release climate-changing greenhouse gases. The fight against climate change implies a rapid, dramatic shift in world energy source–a shift that would be extremely challenging and unprecedented, and that would also require levels of investment measured in the tens of trillions of dollars. However, even if world leaders do nothing to respond to the climate threat, depletion will continue to eat away at the world’s oil, gas, and coal reserves. The quality of fossil fuel resources being produced now is in many cases much poorer than was the case just decades ago, and it is rapidly declining.
These two challenges—climate change and the effects of depletion—will require action if we are to avoid economic and environmental calamity. Such action would entail the replacement not only of energy production infrastructure, but also of much of our energy usage infrastructure, which was designed to take advantage of the specific capabilities of fossil fuels.
If a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels is necessary and inevitable, how could the transition to renewable energy be accomplished, and what would the result look like? A shift to renewable energy for electricity generation implies an efficiency opportunity. Wind and solar produce electricity directly, implying a steep reduction in wasted energy, and electric motors are highly efficient compared to internal combustion engines. Overall, the transition will represent a trade-off between the costs of making a renewable energy system act essentially like the current one and the costs of adapting our energy usage patterns to the inherent qualities and characteristics of renewable resources.
However, only about 20 percent of final energy globally is used in the form of electricity. A transition to mostly wind and solar electricity would require that many technologies that use energy be electrified, or powered with renewables some other way. Some substitutions will be relatively easy, such as trading natural gas space heaters for electric air-source heat pumps. Some will be difficult, such as finding ways to fuel aviation and shipping with renewable power.
An all-renewable economy may be very different from the economy we know today. Indeed, what is required is nothing less than a near complete redesign of industrial systems and a substantial downsizing of energy usage in industrialized nations. If policies and leadership to accomplish these goals are not forthcoming, the eventual result will be dire. Nations will simply burn whatever fossil fuels can be extracted affordably, wrecking the global climate while their economies collapse (probably in stages) due both to declining thermodynamic efficiency and to snowballing environmental impacts. The energy dilemma could hardly be more critical to our future, but there is as yet little evidence that it is being taken seriously.
This post is based on a chapter from Post Carbon Institute’s 2016 book The Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval.