Authors Richard Heinberg and David Fridley in their recent book Our Renewable Future make the case for a society that runs on 100 percent renewable energy. But they don't pull any punches, giving us both the good news and the bad news.
Okay, here's the good news: A 100 percent renewable energy society is well within our technical capability, and we've taken some important steps already. Now, here's the bad news: The 100 percent renewable energy society is inevitable whether we plan for it or not.
I know the bad news perhaps sounds like good news, but it's not. The bad news may make it seem as if all we have to do is sit back while solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, biomass and other forms of renewable energy are deployed at an ever faster pace. But, what the bad news really implies is that if this deployment process isn't coupled with strenuous efforts to decrease our fossil-fuel energy use dramatically, we may find ourselves in a dystopian energy-starved world with a chaotic climate, a world that little resembles the one we live in now.
Here's the problem as the authors explain it toward the end of the book: "Sound national and international climate policies are crucial: without them, it will be impossible to organize a transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy that is orderly enough to maintain industrial civilization, while speedy enough to avert catastrophic ecosystem collapse."
In other words, we'll get to a renewable energy economy eventually as fossil fuels become ever more expensive to take out of the ground. But the default endpoint is not one that results from a planned transition which would try to save the best of industrial civilization while jettisoning the worst.
Rather, the default endpoint is merely the wreckage of an industrial civilization that didn't prepare properly. Such a society would be forced to make due with the energy budget available from renewables like all past civilizations. That's a lot less than we in industrialized countries use, and, more important, far less than we could have if we make sensible and serious plans and implement them starting now.
Heinberg and Fridley don't dwell on this conclusion, but it is at the heart of their message. Most of the book is spent explaining why the transition to renewable energy is possible and how it can take place.
This is a largely hopeful message which explains that there is a lot for each of us to do as citizens in influencing and pushing for the right policies and as community members in preparing ourselves, our families and our neighbors for a lower energy future. The authors make very clear that the amount of renewable energy we can hope to generate in the coming decades simply cannot be expected to match what we are getting today from fossil fuels. That means we have to change many aspects of our society and our daily lives.
Fortunately, as they explain, we know how to reduce our energy footprint dramatically if we have the will and the perseverance. The steps for doing this will sound familiar to many: weatherizing and insulating existing buildings; building new ones for very high energy efficiency; focusing on public transportation, bicycling and walking as modes of daily transport; creating a food system that uses far less energy (which means primarily organic) and builds rather than depletes the soil (which can become a place to store large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere); moving toward local and regional manufacturing (relocalization as it is commonly called) to reduce the need for freight transportation; moving away from the consumer economy which prioritizes consumption and planned obsolescence toward what the authors call the "conserver economy" which prioritizes durability, repair and recycling; and scheduling our electricity use to accommodate the daily cycles that renewables are likely to exhibit.
These are tall orders and lack much of the flash offered by the techno-optimists who assure us that renewable energy will make the future look like the present, only better--and, all we have to do is sit back and watch it happen.
Our Renewable Future is without a doubt the most sensible book I've read on the prospects and promise of renewable energy, and I wholeheartedly endorse its conclusions. A future of 100 percent renewable energy is possible. But only if we act now and persist.
That means there is a lot of work ahead for all of us. The rewards, however, are a stable climate and durable communities that offer many (but not all) of the advantages of our current fossil-fueled civilization. And this future is one that can be ushered in by a transition far more humane and far less traumatic than the one our business-as-usual trajectory could hope to offer.
Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.