Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Green Dreams - Future or Fantasy?

SUMMARY: UK guest host Greg Moffitt interviews scientist David Fridley, from Berkeley National Lab and the Post-Carbon Institute. Radio Ecoshock 150114

We will switch away from fossil fuels sooner or later, because they will run out. If it's later, our kids get a wrecked civilization trying to cope with a wrecked climate. This week on Radio Ecoshock we finish out a three-part series on alternative energy, what it can do, and what it can't.

The take-home from green energy lovers and haters alike is simple: we can't have this crazy civilization running just on the sun and wind. When we stop milking the billion year-pile of concentrated solar, known as oil, gas and coal - something has to change.

That's all in this rebroadcast of a podcast out of Britain, called Host Greg Moffit interviews David Fridley, a long-term energy expert working with both the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the Post Carbon Institute. Pull up an ear, and let's listen in.

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David Fridley is a staff scientist at the China Energy Group of the Berkeley National Lab. He's also a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

It would be interesting to hear a second interview with David about the energy situation in China. But this chat is more global, looking at the heavy load alternative energy must pick up, to support even a fraction of what we do now with fossil fuels. To think we can go on with business as usual under green power is, Fridley says, "magical thinking." That's partly because of the underlying physics behind energy itself.

It all makes sense when you think about it. Fossil fuels are composed of millions of years of solar power - stored in concentrated form by plants and then geological and chemical changes over aeons. The sunlight coming in now can hardly compete with millions of years of storage.

Pretty well all renewable energy ultimately depends upon the sun. Geothermal doesn't. But heat from the sun drives the winds for wind power. Even biofuel depends on sunlight hitting plants.

Fridley also points out a dark fact: not all problems have solutions. I think those cases are more what we call a "predicament". That's what we have now.


Can greater efficiency save us? Not really, as the "Jevons Paradox" tells us. Back in 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons realized that as coal burning equipment became more efficient, more people used more coal. Similarly, Fridley says refrigerators today are twice as energy efficient as those built in 1980. A lot of people have two fridges, and of course at least a billion more people around the world bought new fridges, now that they can afford to run them.

There is a second feed-back loop to energy efficiency. Let's say you don't buy a second fridge, but now you have more money to spend. Energy effiency simply mobilizes more money for more energy consumption in other ways. Almost everything we do, and all wealth, is related to energy consumption, as our Radio Ecoshock guest Tim Garrett showed in a scientific paper. Find a transcript of that interview "Energy = Wealth = Inflation + A Ruined Atmosphere" here.

David Fridley points out that nature's model for survival on a greatly changing Earth is low energy efficiency, but very high redundancy. Our civilization is going the opposite direction. We keep getting more efficient, but knock out any redundancy. (Think about just-in time food deliveries, where the truck are the warehouses, and there are no back-up food supplies in major cities). That makes our society very fragile, and open to collapse.

Making that worse, Fridley refers to a statement by the first American Energy Secretary, James Schlesinger. He said Americans have two main states of existence: complacency and panic.

Like our speaker two weeks ago, Ozzie Zehner, David Fridley thinks that oil, and other fossil fuels, are the foundation behind all renewable energy, whether it's building hydro dams, or solar panels, or wind machines. That is true now, but it doesn't have to be that way, in my opinion.

One real barrier to total conversion to renewables, Fridley says, is the concept of net return of energy. That's the amount of energy you get after investing whatever energy it takes to build and maintain the facility. Coal has a huge return of net energy, getting from 50 to 80 units of power from one unit of power invested. That's why it's relatively cheap, and beloved by some developing countries. Of course that assumes you can wreck the local environment, don't have to pay for the health care for everyone who gets sick breathing the fumes from the power plant, and can dump toxins and climate-wrecking CO2 into the atmosphere for free, forever.

There's also a difficult question of how much net energy, or energy profit, we need to maintain our current level of complexity and specialization. The American systems ecologist Charles A. S. Hall calculates we need from 5 to 8 units of energy profit, for every unit of energy expended to get it - to keep a complex system like ours alive. The Post Carbon Institute has published a report by Charles Hall called "Energy Return on Investment". Find that report free here.

According to David Fridley, who is after all a scientist and energy specialist - biofuels can NOT reach this level of 5 to 8 units of energy profit, once all energy inputs are accounted for. The same is true, he says, of ethanol, or oil derived from the Tar Sands. These energy sources don't create enough surplus energy to maintain a complex civilization. I suppose if that's all we have, we either go back to some pre-fossil Dark Age, or we develop a new low-tech, low energy civilization.

David and host Greg Moffitt get into a discussion of electric cars. They progress to a topic close to my heart, which is the possibility of a decentralized world. Renewables like solar and wind don't need a giant power grid (that wastes half of all electricity put into it).

It's a wide-ranging conversation, about whether renewables can self-replicate, the possibilities of thorium reactors.

In summary, David Fridley says we have enough power now to convert to large-scale renewables. But if we wait 20 or 30 years, then the remaining fossil fuels will be so depleted, there won't be enough to power civilization AND make the conversion. It's another reason to get going with greener energy.


Does that sound impossible? Tune in next week for an experienced scientist who explains how it could happen.

That wraps up our three-part series on alternative energy, and our prospects of powering our future. Find all three programs as free mp3 downloads at our web site, or on the Radio Ecoshock downloads page. My thanks to Greg Moffitt of for this show. You can listen to the full 1 hour 18 minute interview of David Fridley on You tube here.

Next week we get back to interviewing top scientists and trouble-makers about the really big picture. It's startling stuff, as Radio Ecoshock hits the airwaves. Please join us again.

Don't forget to get our past programs as free mp3 downloads from the web site,

I'm Alex Smith. I don't think humans are going extinct any time soon - so please keep tuning in.

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