This looks like a good place for adventure. (Me, playing Space Engineers)
Hello again everyone!
This is kind of a ‘just for fun” post, but something I think is important to talk about all the same. It should come as no surprise to anyone here that aside from being a fiction writer, I’m also a gamer. I like games, and I make no apologies for that. Oregon Trail, Super Mario Brothers, SimCity, Minecraft… All of it. I have been gaming for a long time (and this includes tabletop). Games aren’t real life, but it has always struck me how informative games can be when it comes to thinking about real life. There are important lessons to be learned from games.
Games are designed to simulate some aspects of real life, and so can help us think about all sorts of issues. I really like sandbox, exploration, and building games; so games like Starmade, Minecraft, and Simcity have a lot to teach us about building, crafting, and even urban design and energy policy. It’s the last I really want to focus on today, through the lens of a game called Space Engineers.
I really enjoy Space Engineers, because it is a game built around creativity and exploration, using technology inspired by the real world, in a near future scenario. We see a lot of energy technology that we have at our disposal right now, such as wind turbines, solar panels, hydrogen engines, and even nuclear reactors. There are no fossil fuels in the game, so it is a really useful lens for thinking about energy policy, and the current state of our energy systems.
As games and fiction are can be useful for imaging the future, I want to take you on a bit of thought experiment today. We are going to use my home state of Michigan as an example, with Space Engineers as a lens on our energy policy. So here is our current energy mix for electricity generation;
Alright, so we can from the chart above that Michigan has four main electrical power sources; coal, nuclear, natural gas, and renewable energy (wind, solar, and hydro; primarily.) By contrast, Space Engineers uses all clean sources (though not necessarily renewable) sources of power as I have already pointed out. So can we use Space Engineers to rebuild Michigan’s energy system? Release the army of engineers!
They took the scenic route in their solar/hydrogen powered vehicle.
According to the recent IPCC report, we have to drastically reduce our usage of fossil fuels, and they need to be zero by about 2050 if we are going to have any chance to mitigate climate change. So on the above pie chart, that means that coal and natural gas have to go, so we will start there.
Coal & Natural Gas
Coal and natural gas in Michigan make up about 63% of our total electrical energy supply. As such, well over half our energy system comes from fossil fuels, and would have to be phased out by 2050. Coal is definitely the worst of the two offenders, as natural gas is slightly ‘cleaner’, but in the long run it should go too.
Starting with coal then, and utilizing our full army of Space Engineers, we have to replace 37% of our energy sources. The most obvious sources (leaving nuclear aside for now) are renewable energy, especially wind and solar. Michigan has tremendous wind and solar resources, so our limited factor is energy storage more than production capacity. However, with increasing efficient battery technology, and local Michigan pumped hydro storage, our engineers have no problem replacing coal with renewable energy by 2050.
Which brings our renewable energy percentage up to 45%. Drawdown lists on-shore wind, solar farms, and rooftop solar in the top ten solutions to combat climate change. I don’t see 45% as an unreasonable number, as it may be technically possible to run Michigan on 100% renewables.
Unleash the wind and solar! (Yes, I’m flying. Big whoop.)
The next kicker in our energy mix is natural gas. Like coal, natural gas energy is a form of combustion. Basically, burning a fuel to turn a turbine, which creates electrical energy. There are a lot of variations and methods of this, so I’m not going to go into the technical details all that much. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, produced primarily from oil wells. And while it is ‘cleaner’ than coal, it still produces quite a bit of carbon. Methane is it’s chief component, which is carbon with four hydrogen atoms. So how do we get natural gas out of the mix?
Well, our engineers are good at what they do, so we could just expand more renewables and bring our mix up to 71% renewable. That is possible too, and again the IPCC report says 70-80% renewable energy is about where we’d need to be. So that is one option. We will call that scenario one.
But our Space Engineers also give us another option. One of the big sources of energy in the game is hydrogen; which is used for everything from jetpacks, to rocket engines, to hydrogen engines. So this gives us another option, the hydrogen economy. By using clean renewable energy (as opposed to current techniques), for electrolysis, we could produce abundant amounts of hydrogen from water. If we built up the infrastructure for safe transport and storage of hydrogen gas (which is quite volatile), we could use hydrogen in everything from transportation to gas turbines. In short, it may be pretty easy to convert natural gas power plants to use hydrogen. If we use pure oxygen in addition to the hydrogen, the only waste would be water vapor. So 26% of our energy could also come from hydrogen plants. We will call that scenario two.
Now this is only a hypothetical situation, as there are several aspects of hydrogen and renewable energy that aren’t quite there yet. The only way to make hydrogen viable would be clean, renewable primary energy. That isn’t the case, as we still are mostly using coal and natural gas. Also, the infrastructure isn’t in place yet, though it is growing.
Moving on, the next big energy source in Space Engineers are nuclear reactors. I have used these in the game for a lot of different applications, from factory power to starship reactors. There are some things in the game that require quite a bit of power, and nuclear works nicely for this. In addition, in the real world Michigan gets 30% of it’s energy from nuclear power plants. We have three plants in total.
Drawdown ranks nuclear as #20 on it’s list. This power source has the potential to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, but it comes with a whole bunch of risks and drawbacks. Drawdown lists nuclear as a regrets solution, and has this to say on the topic;
“At Project Drawdown, we consider nuclear a regrets solution. It has potential to avoid emissions, but there are many reasons for concern: deadly meltdowns, tritium releases, abandoned uranium mines, mine-tailings pollution, radioactive waste, illicit plutonium trafficking, and thefts of missile material, among them.”
However, Drawdown goes to say that plausibly; “we assume its share of global electricity generation will grow to 13.6 percent by 2030, but slowly decline to 12 percent by 2050. ” It is important to note that this is global generation, and regional generation can vary a bit. For example, right now global energy production from nuclear is about 11%, whereas Michigan’s percentage is 29%.
With nuclear being both and option in the game, and in real life Michigan, I am going to assume our engineers use the resources we have, and upgrade them to newer, safer reactors. Maybe they even deploy some of those generation IV reactors we hear so much about? (Most reactors in existence are second generation, built in the 70-80’s)
Alright, so our army of engineers have scoured the state of Michigan, and made huge improvements and refinements to our energy system. They also changed out our transportation system, which works mostly now on electricity and/or hydrogen. So where does all this leave us in our game inspired fantasy? With two unique scenarios for a possible sustainable energy future.
Scenario 1: 29% nuclear, 71% renewable.
Scenario 2: 29% nuclear, 45% renewable, 26% hydrogen
I like scenario 1 a little better, because it makes a few less assumptions and relies more on technology we know to work today. The hydrogen economy is a little more of a stretch, because there are a lot of technical details and infrastructure that just doesn’t exist right now. But this imagined scenario is 2050, so our wonderful engineers may have worked that out. It is also technically possible, that the grant us a third scenario that eliminates the nuclear.
Scenario 3: 100% renewable energy, or 100% hydrogen/renewable.
Could the last be possible? I think so, and our engineers are a brilliant sort. It would be the ideal scenario for sure, but engineers are also very pragmatic. That leaves nuclear an open question.
Even though Space Engineers is a game, again, I think it is a great tool to help us think about the future. A future where space travel is real, and our civilization is sustainable. So I leave you with this thought and image. A ship powered by hydrogen and electric thrusters, with energy supplied by a mix of solar, hydrogen and nuclear.
It’s my ship, and thanks for reading!