Sunday, March 18, 2018

The troubling realities of our energy transition

I recently asked a group gathered to hear me speak what percentage of the world's energy is provided by these six renewable sources: solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy.

Then came the guesses: To my left, 25 percent; straight ahead, 30 percent; on my right, 20 percent and 15 percent; a pessimist sitting to the far right, 7 percent.

The group was astonished when I related the actual figure: 1.5 percent. The figure comes from the Paris-based International Energy Agency, a consortium of 30 countries that monitors energy developments worldwide. The audience that evening had been under the gravely mistaken impression that human society was much further along in its transition to renewable energy. Even the pessimist in the audience was off by more than a factor of four.

I hadn't included hydroelectricity in my list, I told the group, which would add another 2.5 percent to the renewable energy category. But hydro, I explained, would be growing only very slowly since most of the world's best dam sites have been taken.

The category "Biofuels and waste," which makes up 9.7 percent of the world total, includes small slivers of what we Americans call biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel), I said, but mostly represents the deforestation of the planet through the use of wood for daily fuel in many poor countries, hardly a sustainable practice that warrants vast expansion. (This percentage has been roughly the same since 1973 though the absolute consumption has more than doubled as population has climbed sharply.) The burden for renewable energy expansion, I concluded, would therefore remain on the six categories I mentioned at the outset of my presentation.

As if to underline this worrisome state of affairs, the MIT Technology Review just days later published a piece with a rather longish title: "At this rate, it’s going to take nearly 400 years to transform the energy system."

In my presentation I had explained to my listeners that renewable energy is not currently displacing fossil fuel capacity, but rather supplementing it. In fact, I related, the U.S. government's own Department of Energy with no sense of alarm whatsoever projects that world fossil fuel consumption will actually rise through 2050. This would represent a climate catastrophe, I told my audience, and cannot be allowed to happen.

And yet, the MIT piece affirms that this is our destination on our current trajectory. The author writes that "even after decades of warnings, policy debates, and clean-energy campaigns—the world has barely even begun to confront the problem."

All this merely serves to elicit the question: What would it take to do what scientists think we need to do to reduce greenhouse gases?

The MIT piece suggests that a total mobilization of society akin to what happened in World War II would have to occur and be maintained for decades to accomplish the energy transition we need to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Few people alive today were alive back then. A somewhat larger group has parents who lived through World War II and so have some inkling of what such a mobilization would involve. It's hard enough to imagine this group agreeing that their household consumption should be curtailed significantly for decades (through taxes, higher prices and perhaps even rationing) to make way for huge societal investments in vast new wind and solar deployments; electricity storage for all that renewable electricity; mass transit; deep energy retrofits for buildings; energy-efficient vehicles; and even revised diets that are less meat-intensive and thereby less energy-intensive. Even harder to image is the much larger group with a more tenuous or nonexistent connection to the World War II experience embracing such a path.

The trouble with waiting, of course, is that climate change does not wait for us, and also that it shows up with multi-decadal lags. The effects of greenhouse gases emitted decades ago are only now registering on the world's thermometers. That means that when climate conditions finally become so destructive as to move the public and the politicians to do something big enough to make a difference, it will likely be too late to avoid catastrophic climate change.

One scientist cited by the MIT piece believes that a rise of more than 2 degrees C in global temperature is all but inevitable and that human society would be "lucky" to avoid a rise of 4 degrees by 2100.

But since each increment of temperature rise will inflict more damage, the scientist says, we would be wise to seek to limit temperature rise as much as we are able (even though the odds are now overwhelmingly against staying below a 2 degree rise). No longer are we faced with prevention so much as mitigation and management. That's still something, and it provides a way forward that doesn't rely on an increasingly unrealistic goal.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Taking a short break - No post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, March 18.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

United States as energy exporter: Is it "fake news"?

Much of the media coverage of the American energy industry implies that America has become a vast and growing exporter of energy to the rest of the world and that this has created a sort of "energy dominance" for the country on the world stage.

Whether such reports qualify as so-called "fake news" depends very much on three things: 1) How one defines "fake news," 2) whether writers of such reports qualify the words "imports" and "exports" with the word "net" and 3) which energy sources they are discussing.

In this case let's define "fake news" as claims that official, publicly available statistics show plainly to be false. By that criterion anyone who claims that the United States is a net energy exporter would certainly be guilty of propagating "fake news."

Energy statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that in November 2017 (the most recent month for which figures are available) the United States had net imports 329.5 trillion BTUs of energy in all its forms.* That's down from a peak of 2.74 quadrillion BTUs in August 2006, something that is certainly a turnabout from the previous trend. But all claims that the United States is a net energy exporter must be labeled as unequivocally false.

It turns out, however, that most people making misleading claims about America's energy situation don't actually say or write things which are technically false. What they do is use language which intentionally or unintentionally misleads the reader or listener.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Climate change: The feel-good catastrophe

Last week my newly adopted home of Washington, D.C. had two back-to-back days of summer in the middle of winter. The first day the temperature reached 78 degrees (when the high is normally 48 degrees). That was a new record. The next day the high was 82 degrees (normally 49 degrees). Not surprisingly, that was a record, too.

People were walking the streets in T-shirts and shorts. Last week's balmy interlude felt like those late spring days which provide a preview of the summer ahead. Everyone was telling me I had to get outside so I could to take advantage of such great weather—which I did.

But the long walk I took on day one was not a particularly happy one. As most of the rest of the Washingtonians I encountered were experiencing the feel-good part of the feel-good catastrophe called climate change, I was experiencing the catastrophe part.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

LNG comes to Boston, a harbinger of the future?

The most curious natural gas story of the year so far comes out of Boston and seems to have echoes of a deepening Russia-related scandal in Washington. A liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker bearing natural gas produced in part in Russia delivered its cargo to the Boston area for insertion into the natural gas pipeline system there. Apparently, the Russian company that supplied some of the gas may fall under U.S. sanctions against the financing and importation of Russian goods.

One of the many ironies of the delivery is that the United States is simultaneously importing LNG in one place even as it exports LNG from another. (I'll explain later why this may become a more frequent occurrence in the years ahead.)

The hue and cry from the natural gas partisans blamed Boston's predicament on the lack of pipelines to carry growing gas production from the nearby Marcellus and Utica shale deposits to needy Bostonians whose gas supplies had been depleted by a deep winter freeze.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The stock market swoon and our hatred of (some kinds of) volatility

The steepest one-day point drop in the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average last week shook stock investors into an awareness that all is not sweetness and light in the financial markets. The sudden downside stock market volatility had been preceded by the breathless upside volatility of a months-long melt-up—one that had financial gurus outbidding each other to increase their targets for major stock indices. (See here and here.) Investors, too, felt that heaven had arrived on Earth, at least financial heaven.

After years of steady gains—with only the occasional drop—stock and bond market investors had gotten used to narrow swings in price that didn't disturb their sleep. In fact, whenever the stock (or bond market) looked like it might crash, the world's central banks offered reassurance both in words and deeds. The deeds included unprecedented buying of bonds (which kept interest rates low) and in some cases the purchase of stocks. The Bank of Japan and Swiss National Bank are two central banks which buoyed stocks through purchases though they bought stocks for different reasons.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Ruin is forever (revisited): Why your death isn't as bad as that of all humankind

It should be obvious that the death of an individual human being isn't as bad as the death of all humankind. But that's only true if you accept the following premise laid out by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his upcoming book, Skin in the Game:

I have a finite shelf life; humanity should have an infinite duration. Or I am renewable, not humanity or the ecosystem.

The quotation actually comes from a draft version of one chapter available here. The book is not yet out.

But what does this mean in practical terms? The simple answer is that human societies should not engage in activities which risk destroying all of humanity. Nuclear war comes to mind. And, most, if not all, people recognize that a nuclear war would not only result in unthinkably large immediate casualties, but also might threaten all life on Earth with a years-long nuclear winter.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Who will drink the last glass of water in Cape Town?

Because Cape Town sits between picturesque beaches and mountains, it is a favored travel destination. And, its weather during the summer is described as "almost too perfect." That's in part because it rains very little in the summer in this second most populous city in South Africa.

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Trouble is, starting in 2015 the rainy season never arrived. One year, then two years and now three years of extreme drought have brought the city's water supplies almost to exhaustion. Barring extraordinary rains or even more draconian cutbacks in water usage than have already occurred, Cape Town officials say they will have to turn off water to most household taps and businesses sometime in April. They're calling it "Day Zero." Hospitals and essential public facilities will be exempt. Most residents would have to line up at designated water supply stations for a daily allocation of 25 liters.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The energy of Bitcoin, the information economy and the (possible) decentralization of the world

The near vertical rise and fall in price of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin in recent months has been accompanied by reporting about the energy used to run the Bitcoin network. The amount is enormous, more than enough to supply the entire country of Ireland.

Many other cryptocurrencies operate under less energy-intensive designs. But the more than 1,000 other digital coins beyond Bitcoin certainly use a considerable amount of energy though there is no overall estimate I'm aware of. (For the technically minded, here is a discussion of two popular methods associated with validating transactions, one of which is considerably less energy-intensive.)

We'd like to think that the information economy of which these newfangled currencies are part bears lightly on the broader environment. But as I pointed out in my piece "The Unbearable Lightness of Information," much of what happens in the information economy is simply focused on extracting more resources more quickly to create more goods and services for more customers. The physical economy isn't disappearing. It is merely being exploited more completely using digital information.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Protagoras and the Anthropocene: Can man still be the measure of all things?

The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras is famous for his saying that man is the measure of all things. Though we don't know much about Protagoras or his written work except for quotations appearing in other ancient works, the general view is that Protagoras was the father of moral relativism in philosophy.

The Protagoras's complete statement has been translated as follows: "Of all things the measure is man, of the things that are, that [or "how"] they are, and of things that are not, that [or "how"] they are not." It is unlikely that Protagoras believed that physical truths about the natural world such as the freezing point of water depended on one's personal standpoint.

But under Protagoras's tutelage in matters of values, we are left only with the measuring instrument called "man" (or more inclusively "humans"). In the age of the Anthropocene—that still-not-official geologic age in which humans are designated as the most potent geologic force on the planet—those issues thought to relate solely to the lives of humans do NOT, it turns out, relate simply to humans.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Hawaii's existential choice: Tourism, food and survival

Hawaiians used to feed themselves quite easily on this island paradise. With the arrival of Europeans and Americans came European and American ideas about plantation agriculture. Hawaii became a producer of coffee, sugar, pineapple, papaya, rice and other plantation crops.

While destroying Hawaii's diverse food system, the growers created a prosperous agricultural trading economy with mainland markets as customers. But competition from low-cost producers elsewhere has more recently devastated that economy. The last remaining sugar plantation closed in 2016.

The decline of the previously large sugar and pineapple industries now make Hawaii much more dependent on tourism as a source of income. Tourists are Hawaii's largest industry. They spent $15.6 billion in 2016 on vacations there representing about 18.5 percent of the total economy. That certainly underestimates their importance as many additional support services are needed to maintain the businesses that service the tourists.