I recently resumed my coffee conversations with a local environmentalist where I live in Pasadena, Los Angeles. Morey Wolfson has a long career behind him, including as chief consultant in energy issues for the governor of Colorado. He welcomed Chinese delegations who had big eyes on the radical perspectives he put forward.
Long before that, in the 60's, Wolfson searched for "solar energy" at the local library and found only one title. Here he read that solar energy could probably cover the world's energy needs. He saw the light and in the 70's opened his own bookstore for solar power literature in his hometown of Denver, and ran a campaign for solar power. Wolfson, of course, despairs that only a few percent of US energy consumption is covered by renewable energy sources.
Nuclear power and coal power
In the 70's, Wolfson also led a counter-campaign against his nemesis Edward Teller, who besides being an avid defender of nuclear power invented the hydrogen bomb, which he would use for a number of useful purposes. His plan, the so-called Project Plowshare, about blowing up tens of thousands of hydrogen bombs underground to open cracks in the bedrock and make new oil reserves available, stands as a kind of highlight of modern hubris. Surprisingly, it has also recently emerged that Teller was one of the first in the American public who in strong words warned against the greenhouse effect and global warming, and that at the conference Energy and Man on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the American oil industry back in 1959. But for him, future climate change was an argument for nuclear power. The choice stood for him between evils, as it so often seems to do in energy policy, and thus the road was short to choose what appeared to be the least of these evils.
For Edward Teller, future climate change was an argument for nuclear power.
I thought for a long time that such choices between evils were less relevant in Norway, since we at least have hydropower – until I found out that Norwegian electricity today comes from imported coal power and nuclear power from the continent. This according to a half-hidden pie chart on NVE's own pages, which states that Norsk electricity is clean and that the emissions do not happen here at home, since the dirty power we buy comes from the EU. Thanks and goodbye to the benefits of electric cars, one could easily think. Why are conventional and polluting energy sources so tenacious? Why did it take 50 years for solar power to become a relevant resource? Will development continue to be just as slow, or will global warming and falling prices for alternative energy sources create a sudden upheaval? One thing is for sure – we are not there yet, far from it!
Elliot: Renewable energy
In the book Renewable Energy adds the British energy expert David Elliot Win at being sober, realistic, ambiguous and objective, hoping that it will strengthen the basic message that renewable energy can really do the job. Precisely doing the job is the purpose of energy, and without Elliot's book going in depth historically, we know that we have gone from a world where muscle power and wood burning have gradually been replaced by other energy sources: first coal, then oil and gas, as together with hydropower and nuclear power still constituting the current energy regime. All of today's global civilization and infrastructure are based on these energy sources. Energy is far more than a technological and engineering issue, but a whole form of society. We must understand the very material basis for the tug-of-war over renewable energy and CO2 emissions.
If we look at the earth's total energy consumption, we are talking about around 17 TW, corresponding to approx. 150 terrawatt hours per year – including transport, industry and heating (not just electricity). This is a crucial figure that strangely enough shines with its absence in Elliot's book, and it covers what it takes to do all the world's jobs, from lighting streets and heating the morning shower to extracting raw materials, refining them and transporting goods and people around the world. above. Here we include not only electricity consumption, where renewable energy sources make up as much as 000 per cent, but also energy in the form of heating and fuel for transport and industrial machinery, which means that the share for renewable energy sources is much smaller. Hydropower delivers just over 26 TW, wind power 1 TW, with a potential of 1–5, and solar power delivers only ½ TW, but also has, according to Elliott's updated calculations, a potential of a staggering 10 TW, ie more than the world's total energy consumption.
My friend, the solar power fighter Wolfson, has pointed out the enormous sums that in the last fifty years have been channeled into research and industrial development for oil, coal and gas, while completely insignificant resources have gone to the development of solar power. Elliott points out in his book that although research and product development have a lot to say, it is often only when the products are handed over to market forces that development and innovation really accelerate. Between 2009 and 2017, for example, the price of solar power and offshore wind power fell by 76 and 34 percent respectively!
Renewable energy economy
So why does this not lead to a complete takeover of the energy market? Apart from the inertia of the mass and the conversion to renewable, Elliot finds some of the answer among the energy conservatives: The power networks require an equalization where the power supply is uneven, which for obvious reasons is the case for solar and wind power. The challenge will thus be to build networks that are smart enough and large enough for a number of different energy sources to flow together, equalize and provide a stable power supply despite the fact that each source is unstable. A seemingly realistic solution is local networks of energy sources, where home power plants and energy-positive houses are also included in an energy ecological balance. Among the more speculative but interesting solutions is a complete global energy network, which will always be able to obtain solar power from a place where there is daylight.
Among the speculative solutions for a fully renewable energy economy is of course also science-fiction-science, such as fusion reactors, solar mirrors in space, giant hydrological heat pumps and flying wind turbines in higher air layers or tidal barriers that block fjords and sound and pick up energy twice a day. Elliott is open to all this, but emphasizes that we already have enough technologies to initiate a full transition to renewable energy sources. The solution is not to replace the old regime dominated by oil, gas, coal and nuclear power with one, two or three new energy sources. We must do everything at once in a revolutionary patchwork of flexible energy sources and energy-saving measures.
What if we do not have enough time?
At the beginning of the book quotes Elliot Vaclav Smil, which states that the energy restructuring will necessarily have to take several decades. But what if we do not have enough time? The doomsday clock set in New York gives us seven years until global warming can reach a critical point of no return. What is necessary is negotiated against what is possible, but when energy policy is presented as "the art of the possible", the premise is that we cannot sacrifice economic growth. Changes that go too fast will meet popular opposition, so that they are, so to speak, self-destructive. Politicians who are in favor of cutting the total energy budget will probably be voted out.
The Internet already consumes as much energy as the world's total air traffic.
In the book's most challenging chapter, Elliott tries to examine whether continued economic growth is compatible with a transition to renewable energy sources. Surprisingly, he points out that alternative energy sources can in principle supply far more energy than we will ever be able to need, which in principle opens up for endless economic growth. The problem with growth lies in areas other than the energy constraints: in pollution, in the over-consumption of resources. Those who dream of a post-capitalist luxury communism or an automated society of abundance of digital goods and services do not realize that the world's information exchange on the Internet already consumes as much energy as the world's total air traffic.
For or against?
The book's strength is that it addresses basic debates and views. With the many trade-offs and constant hesitation, there is a risk of becoming a pure reflex of the world community's own paralysis of action. Yes, of course there are many voices, considerations and problems, but that is precisely why we need someone who can cut through and say how the necessary can be made possible.
A fully renewable energy economy houses fusion reactors, solar mirrors in space, giant hydrological heat pumps and flying wind turbines in higher air layers or tidal barriers.
Elliots sometimes gets lost in the rendering of conflicting perspectives that he is unable to mediate between. But to the question "Is it possible?" in the last chapter, the answer is hesitant: We do not know whether technologies can be introduced quickly enough in a growth economy. But is a sudden settlement with a global growth economy credible?
He also asks emphatically: "How much will it cost." With the US presidential debate fresh in our minds, we know that this is a dangerous question: In the first presidential debate, Trump ridiculed the plan for a Green New Deal at a price of 900 trillion kroner (1 trillion = 1 million million, or about 5 million kroner per American household total the next decade) as unrealistic. Biden commented on this little and should have used Elliott's argument: The price for not switching to renewable energy sources will be far greater. We could have started in the 70's and reached a society based on alternative energy sources in 2000. Now the change must take place at lightning speed, because it is almost too late to save the balance in the global climate. To make the necessary possible, despite all the considerations, is also present in Elliot's book. As he soberly says at the end: "There is no realistic alternative."