“It is important for each individual, community, and nation to take stock of what that means for the betterment of the whole. Technical solutions can never move forward without political will, and the necessary political will requires a shift in our most deeply held values, in our very definitions of what it means to be human, and in how humanity relates to the world. We recognize this shift as a spiritual imperative. “ A Pagan Statement on the Environment
Hello again folks!
I have been very busy with the holidays, but I am trying my best to keep up regular blog posts. However, with other projects waiting in the wings I have had to prioritize the writing I am going to get done this year. Frankly, I’m just not going to be able to get to everything I want to before I go into “manuscript mode” towards the end of the year. There is a much larger project fighting me for mental space.
As such, I have decided that my next two posts will be about Renewable Energy and Sustainable Cities; which are UN Sustainable Development Goals number 7 and 11 respectively. These two goals are really close to my heart, and I want to get them out as soon as I can. I want to, and plan to, write about all the other SDG’s as well, but they will have to go onto the back burner around the end of the year. I will have to come back to them in the new year.
So let’s jump right in. Today I want to talk about renewable energy, and the role it will need to play in creating a sustainable world. The fact of the matter is that most of our energy generation technologies are dirty, and rely on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, as NASA points out, are one of the largest contributors to atmospheric carbon dioxide:
“On Earth, human activities are changing the natural greenhouse. Over the last century the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). This happens because the coal or oil burning process combines carbon with oxygen in the air to make CO2. To a lesser extent, the clearing of land for agriculture, industry, and other human activities has increased concentrations of greenhouse gases.” (NASA)
The above quote highlights some of the many human causes of climate change, and yes climate change is the result of human activities. At this point, we don’t have the luxury of burying our heads in the sand (or up some unspecified orifice).
Fossil fuels are used in everything from our power systems to our transportation systems, to our materials such as plastics. Fossil fuels are ubiqitous throughout our entire society, and for the the sake of the planet as well as the future of our civilizations we need to be transitioning away from a fossil fuel economy. And we need to be doing it now.
More than that, it is is possible. We have the means and technology to make this transition today. What we lack is resources (public, private, and otherwise) and political will. These changes are waiting for us to embrace them, and time is of the essence.
In fact, as the World Economic Forum points out, world wide fossil fuel use could end as early as 2050. Not only could we end fossil fuel use, but we could transform the vast majority of our energy systems to renewable and sustainable sources.
As the WEF points out;
“The study, by the Solutions Project, aims to completely remove reliance on fossil fuels by switching all energy use to renewable sources.
It claims doing so would deliver the Paris Climate Change Agreement target of keeping global warming to below 1.5C.
It could also help avert the 4.6 million deaths that are connected to air pollution each year.”
(Image from The Solutions Project)
2050 is 33 years away. At most a generation or two. I could live to see that world, and it will be the world our children and grandchildren will inherit. We must do our best to make sure that world is the best for them. Greener, cleaner, renewable, and more sustainable.
If you have the time, be sure to also check this video where Mark Jacobson explains how that transition could happen.
Now, I think the scale and benefits of the task ahead of us is pretty clear, so I don’t feel any need to harp on that further. As such, let’s turn to the see what the SDG’s point to as targets for this goal.
“By 2030, ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services”
This one is pretty straight forward, and basically involves further developing our energy infrastructure, especially in areas of the Global South that are often undeserved or don’t have access to reliable energy sources at all.
“By 2030, increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.”
I honestly wish this target had stronger verbiage. While I think it is important to ratchet up our efforts, it is pretty clear in many cases that we can and need to be doing a lot more. We need a better vision, more investment, and more boots on the ground doing the actual work. It is not enough to “increase substantially” the share of renewables, no. We need to be pushing for a full transition.
“By 2030, enhance international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology, including renewable energy, energy efficiency and advanced and cleaner fossil-fuel technology, and promote investment in energy infrastructure and clean energy technology
This target speaks most strongly to my last point about the need for increased investment. At every level we can, from the individual to the international, we need to be freeing up the resources to make the transition to renewables possible. That is everything from research and development of new technologies, as well as greater efficiency, and infrastructure. Science and engineering requires funding, labor and materials. We need to make that more available than we do now.
“By 2030, expand infrastructure and upgrade technology for supplying modern and sustainable energy services for all in developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States, and land-locked developing countries, in accordance with their respective programmes of support”
If you build it, sustainability will come. This is pretty straight forward and blends nicely into the previous points I have already made.
All told, on top of investment and resources, we need to be creating a policy environment that allows renewables to thrive. As the quote at the beginning of this piece points out, all the technology in the world isn’t any use if we don’t have the policies to enable it. Rooftop solar and micro-wind doesn’t help us at all if cities don’t allow residents to put them up. The most efficient wind turbines and solar farms can never be built if we keep subsidizing fossil fuels and continue to make it difficult to invest in those projects.
With that in mind, let’s look at some of the policies of social democracy that help to create a fertile culture for renewable energy.
As Wikipedia points out, there are a lot of things that could impede our transition to renewable energy systems;
- Climate change denial
- Efforts to impede renewable energy by the fossil fuel industry
- Political paralysis
- Unsustainable consumption of energy and resources
- Path dependencies and outdated infrastructure
- Financial and governance constraints
This should sound real familiar to those of use living in the US. As such, we have to wonder what we can do better. As is the regular habit of this series, we look to Northern Europe for some guidance.
First off, let’s just take a peek at what the World Economic Forum had to say about the countries that are closest to 100% renewable energy:
“According to the Solutions Project study, published in the journal Joule, the countries closest to 100% renewable energy are: Tajikistan (76%), Paraguay (58.9%), Norway (35.8%), Sweden (20.7%), Costa Rica (19.1%), Switzerland (19%), Georgia (18.7%), Montenegro (18.4%), and Iceland (17.3%).” (WEF)
I want you to notice that of nine countries listed, three of them are Nordic. Norway is by far the closest, but at under 40% still has a long way to go. The WEF also put Norway, Sweden and Denmark in the top ten (behind on Switzerland) on their Worlds Top Energy Peformer’s List.
The US by contrast was given a score of 52 out of the 127 countries surveyed. There is plenty of room for improvement there.
So what are some of the things the Nordic countries are doing right? For that we are going to look at the Nordic Solutions for Sustainable Cities;
You might be wondering why a focus on cities instead of the countries as a whole? First, because the cities represented are primarily capital cities, and so are quite representative of the countries as a whole. Second, because by focusing on specific cities, we can talk about specific solutions as opposed to generalities. These will become more important as we get to the Drawdown section of this article. Third, cities can serve as models to other cities across the globe. While policies and cultures vary quite a bit between nations and boundaries, most cities have the capacity to implement these solutions in their own way. More than nations, cities are the real heart of civilization. This will also serve as a good transition into my future piece on Sustainable Cities.
Some of the details here presented represent 8 different Nordic cities; Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo, Helsinki, Manehamm, Nuuk, Torsavn, and Reykjavik. I will only be detailing small excerpts here, so I encourage you to look at the source yourself for more details.
I will be focusing my attention on just four of the cities, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo, and Helsinki.
(From Nordic Solutions)
540,000 population. Targeting being carbon neutral by 2025.
861,000 population. Targeting being fossil fuel free by 2050.
615,000 population. 50% reduction in C02 by 2030.
588,000 population. 20% carbon reduction by 2020.
But as the source points out; there are some very specific things each of these cities are doing, often in cooperation with one another and other levels of government.
“Traditional, centralised generation of energy is often inefficient, wasting 60% or more of fuel – in particular, the generation of electrical power using fossil fuels or nuclear simultaneously produces large quantities of heat energy that, with nowhere to go, is discarded. “
How have the Nordic cities tackled this problem?
“In response, over the last 100 years, the Nordic cities have championed decentralised, district energy networks; systems that can generate energy at fairly large scales, but close to where the demand is…”
There are so many different things that each of the cities are doing, so please I encourage you to peruse the source cited. It is full of case studies on many of the cities, and these are important models that US cities can certainly be replicating. But it goes well beyond technological solutions and even political well. As the Nordic Solutions points out;
“City governments and technology are important when it comes to addressing the challenges facing cities in the 21st century. However, ultimately it is the way that individual people and companies act that dictates resource demands, consumption patterns and our impact on the natural surroundings. To truly address the challenges of climate change, resource depletion and population growth, human behaviour must change. Acting sustainably must become ‘normal’.”
But, don’t despair for the US. There are ideas out there on how to fully convert our power grid to a renewables. Be sure to check out the great infographics from National Geographic for the US here and even for the whole world here.
I don’t want to belabor this point any more than I have too, because there is quite a bit more to say on specific solutions as presented by Drawdown, many of which are in place or in development in many in the Nordic cities.
So let’s explore those in more depth, shall we?
(Image From Drawdown)
Now, there is quite a bit in this section from Drawdown, so I absolutely encourage you to check out the website, or better yet buy the book. The image above does a great job showing how these solutions are all integrated, and how they interact with many other areas including city infrastructure and with the environment.
As a whole, the implementation costs for these solutions is $5 trillion dollars. That kind of price tag exceeds the capacities of any one city or even any one nation. It is only through cooperation and collaboration at all levels that we can hope to implement these solutions.
If we do so, Drawdown estimates that these solutions will remove 246 gigatons from the atmosphere, and we will save almost $21 trillion in operating costs in the long run. The point is, we need investment and political will. These solutions will help protect the environment, build a sustainable, as well as benefit the economy by more then paying for themselves in the long run.
Due to the fact that there are so many different ways we can build a sustainable and renewable energy future, I am going to be limiting myself the best I can. Mostly because of space reasons, but also because the website already exists for all of this, and it is easier for me to point you there.
Seriously, check out Drawdown’s Energy Solutions if you have not already!
Without further ado;
Wind Energy – I’m going to be talking about most of the solutions as blocs, for space reasons. This bloc is scalable; ranging from Micro-wind at the individual level to large scale facilities both Onshore and Offshore.
Heck, it can even includes floating wind farms like those that just came online in Scotland. With all the open ocean and even lake space (looking at you Michigan), floating wind and solar projects could certainly open up many possibilities for a renewable future.
Onshore wind turbines alone have a huge mitigation impact, as they come in at the #2 solution for climate change according to Drawdown. For the energy sector as as while, onshore turbines will help avoid 35% of C02 emissions from 2020 – 2050.
Wind by far has the largest impact as a bloc of the energy sector, and it needs support, investment, and elbow grease from everyone.
Solar energy is also a really diverse bloc of solutions that are immediately scaleable. On the individual level there is Rooftop Solar, which can be installed everywhere from households, to skyscrapers, to parking lot covers. At larger scales there is great potential with PV Solar Farms as well as Concentrated Solar Plants
While not as impactful as wind energy, Solar Farms can help mitigate up to 15% of C02 emissions and also are the #8 solution according to Drawdown. Rooftop Solar adds another 10%, with Concentrated Solar adding another 5% mitigation to the mix.
Geothermal is admittedly a small part of this mix, but for a truly renewable and sustainable future we will have to implement a diverse plurality of sources. Most certainly wind and solar, but also techniques such as geothermal as well. Drawdown ranks this as #18 out of 100 solutions, and Iceland can certainly be a model for how to do geothermal.
Nearly 70% of the Earth’s surface is water, and the energy available from this resource is immense, if we can learn to tap it in a way that is sustainable and economical. Obviously, water power brings to mind the big hydropower plants, which have certainly been a mixed blessing from an environmental standpoint. But it can also include much smaller scale operations such as In-Stream Hydropower as well as Wave and Tidal Energy.
Like geothermal these solutions will make up a smaller percentage of the mix. But they cannot be discounted, and Drawdown ranks Wave and Tidal as the #29 solution, and In Stream Hydro as #48.
All of these solutions take time and resources to implement. Construction takes time, as does convincing politicians it is a good idea. As such, it is practical impossible to whole stop our fossil-fuel based energy system overnight and wake up in a renewable future tomorrow. That means we will need to transition away from fossil fuels by decommissioning older fossil fuel sources and building new renewable infrastructure simultaneously. The sooner and more aggressively we can do this the better in my opinion, and the better for a future as well.
That being said, there will be many “transition” solutions that we will need to bridge that gap without catastrophically interrupting energy systems. Some of these solutions include things like ethanol and other biofuels, as well as hybrid vehicles. However, it also includes things like Nuclear, Biomass Energy, and Waste To Energy Waste To Energy.
Many people push nuclear as the “best” method for the future, but that kind of reasoning has a lot of flaws. While nuclear fission plants can create a lot of energy, they are also very expensive and can create toxic wastes. While Drawdown ranks nuclear as the #20 solution, it also predicts its use will decline over time and considers nuclear to be a “regrets” solution. The more we rely on nuclear, the more we will come to regret doing so.
The same is true of waste to energy. In an ideal sustainable world, less waste would be produced to being with, and the rest would be recycled, composted or reused somehow. However, that is not our reality at the moment, and waste to energy is one way that is being utilized. It is a dirty process that relies on incineration, and Drawdown also considers this one a “regrets” solution. The less we use Waste-to-energy, the better.
Now, electrical sources such as wind and solar are rightly criticized for their intermittent nature. This can certainly be partially mitigated by more localized construction, as well as a diversity of sources. However, those ideas can only go so far, and in order to truly implement renewable energy we will also have to reshape and rethink how we handle energy storage and transmission.
Part of this will involve decentralizing many energy storages system, not only on the individual or local level but also at utility scale. This will involve the creation of advanced battery storage systems at many different levels. That will allow us to mitigate the sometimes volatile nature of wind and solar sources.
It will also involve making our energy grid for more flexible, as our current grid is designed for utility scale centralized energy production. Renewables such as solar and wind have specific siting requirements (sunny or windy areas), and also benefit from being as local as possible to where the energy produced is consumed. More than this, our grids will need to be further localized and decentralized, such as is the case with Microgrids.
We have the technology we need to create a sustainable future right now, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to research and develop new energy solutions. As Drawdown points out, there are some potentials on the horizon that may be worth our time exploring.
The first in regards to Drawdown is nuclear fusion, which uses the same process as the sun to make energy out of light atoms. Unlike modern nuclear fission, which relies on breaking down of heavy elements (such as uranium) to create energy, fusion combines light elements such as hydrogen in order to create energy. However, it must be said that this has been an expensive technology to develop, and so far remains unproven. If humanity does figure out a process for fusion, it could revolutionize our energy future with abundant clean energy. Though for the time being, collecting the energy of the sun is probably more economical.
Another really promising technology is Solid State Wave Energy. One of the big problems in utilizing wave and tidal energy has been cost efficiency and the fact that like wind turbines, water based systems require moving parts and need to be able to handle ocean and water stresses. This has proven to be very cost prohibitive in tapping the some 80,000 terawatt hours of energy that might be available to us in the ocean.
To get around the problem of moving parts, a company in Seattle is trying to develop Solid State Wave Energy, which does not rely on moving parts. Given the raw amount of energy capacity available, Solid State is may well help us unlock the untapped energy potential of the ocean.
Even without future prospects on the table, the fact of the matter is that we have the capacity and the technology to build a renewable and sustainable infrastructure for the planet TODAY. What we need is political will and financial resources made available. This has to be a collective effort, from individuals, to nations, to international partnerships.
I will be about 65 years old in 2050, and a great gift to the future would be a renewable powered world. I could see this world even…
The question is not CAN we, but WILL we?
Thanks for reading!