Blinded by the lights
· What if the energy runs out tomorrow? ·
Why consumerism as we know it must stop?
We thought that we would always be able to buy more and better stuff. Like looking at the sun, we have been blinded by flashy adverts promising instant bliss with a quick swipe of a credit card. But behind the soothing music and the bright smiles on the billboards a nagging murmur about finite resources has become louder. And louder.
We need one and a half earths to keep producing, consuming, and wasting at the rate we do now. The current energy crisis is shining a spotlight on the fragility of a model already weakened by material shortages, supply chain disruption and the collapse of natural ecosystems.
Cheap and expendable fossil fuel energy is the lifeblood of our take, make and throw away manufacturing machine. Could the energy crisis signal the end of an era? Do we have alternatives to fossil fuels?
Can we switch to renewable energy?
It is tempting to believe we can. For most of the twenty years I have spent working in the renewable energy sector I thought we could, and twenty years ago that might just have been true. But even as we lauded renewable energies as the solution, we have been steadily increasing our use of fossil fuels.
More coal and gas was consumed globally in 2021 than before the COVID 19 pandemic. Renewable energy projects are omnipresent in political speeches, in the press, and in marketing campaigns. However, over the last twenty years renewable energies have not even met the additional global demand for energy. Source: Our World in Data
We know that renewable energies are a key solution to the energy crisis and that they can provide us with local, low carbon, and in some cases low-cost energy. So why don’t we use them more?
Renewable energy technologies are not zero impact. Each technology option comes with constraints, for example land use, visual impact, or rare material consumption. The availability of the ‘fuel’, whether it be sunlight, wind, water, subsurface heat or biomass depends on the characteristics of a region, its topography, its natural resources and the availability of materials.
Once these constraints are taken into consideration, we realize that there are very few nations capable of maintaining current energy supply in the short to medium term by substituting with renewables. There is simply not enough natural resources, expertise, time or money to go round.
Renewable energies are essential for future energy supplies however they are not without challenges.
Wind energy requires minimum wind speeds and production is intermittent and unpredictable. Turbine manufacture requires special infrastructure and often uses materials that are scarce. There is not yet a feasible recycling option for turbine blades. Wind farms rarely benefit from unanimous public support.
Like wind energy, solar energy is dependent on climatic conditions and production is intermittent. Solar farms require relatively large land areas, and the energy storage options for creating a continuous supply come with their own set of environmental, economic and technical challenges.
Most biofuels today are made from food crops. Around 40% of corn grown in America is used to make bioethanol. Depending on the crop, the type of land used, and the transport required, the CO2emissions can vary significantly. Alternative technologies using non-food crops are not yet mature.
Hydroelectricity is dependent on rainfall and topography. Small installations can have relatively little environmental impact however the environmental and social impact of large infrastructure projects is considerable. There have been some catastrophic accidents due to dam failures.
What about other sources of low carbon energy?
Lifecycle analysis studies show that nuclear energy is on a par with renewable energy technologies in terms of CO2emissions. Experience, particularly in France, shows it can be an economic and relatively dependable energy source resulting in a low carbon energy mix. But here again we encounter challenges. Nuclear plants require huge upfront investment and take anywhere from 8 to 30 years to build. There are evident risks associated with nuclear disasters and there is the thorny question of waste management.
Where nuclear energy is concerned our inaction over the last decades has robbed us of the luxury of a simple question, “nuclear or no nuclear?” The German context clearly illustrates that the debate concerning nuclear energy has become a deliberation of risk management. Do we consider the risks of nuclear energy higher for us and for the planet than the risks of fossil fuel power plants which emit between 80 and 200 times more CO2 per unit of energy?
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is another technology offering low carbon energy. The proposition is seductive. The CO2released from the fossil fuels that we dig up is captured, compressed and reinjected into underground reservoirs. The CO2can be captured from concentrated sources such as cement factories or coal fired power stations, or from the atmosphere. The technology has been tried and tested at scale and is an obvious solution for industries with high levels of concentrated CO2 emissions such as cement factories and coal fired power plants. Development is however hampered by the requirement of significant investment, long lead times, stable political support, public approval, and specific geological characteristics.
When weighing up the pros and cons of alternatives to fossil energies we should not lose sight of why we became so reliant on them in the first place. Hydrocarbons are a fabulous source of energy. With only a litre of petrol, we can power a car for 20km. It is nothing short of miraculous, humanity’s very own genie in a barrel.At some point however we engineers and scientists must hold up our hands and admit that we have nothing to match this particular genie in terms of concentrated energy potential, accessibility and ease of use.
The catalogue of potential low carbon alternatives includes those mentioned above and numerous others, for example biogas, algae, wave power, and hydrogen as an energy vector. These technologies are an indispensable part of the solution to our energy conundrum, and we need to support rapid deployment at scale. We do however also need to accept that we cannot maintain current energy consumption levels without fossil fuels.
Can we be more efficient?
Absolutely, yes we can. We are becoming more efficient with our energy. Depending on the industry, energy efficiency measures can reduce energy use from 5 to 30%. In reality, the long payback times mean that implementation of energy efficiency measures is low, although higher energy prices will encourage more investment.
In the transport sector there has been a clear reduction in energy consumption per kilometer. This has simply let us travel further and more frequently in an ever-growing number of ships, cars and planes.
So can we keep buying more new stuff?
No. Our ability to produce new stuff depends on economic growth which is directly correlated to energy consumption. Energy today is largely fossil based and emits CO2. The IPCC tells us that CO2 emissions need to decrease by almost half by 2030, to have a chance of limiting the rise in the planet’s temperatures to 1.5C. The converging environmental and economic pressures will impose a reduction of fossil fuel use and we simply do not have the capacity to decarbonate our energy mix fast enough.
Despite all the promises to the contrary, the empirical evidence tells us that the end of the era of disposable stuff is nigh. Production as it is, or was(?), cannot continue.
Recent headlines from across the world
Could recycling be the answer?
When we recycle materials, the raw material extraction phase is replaced with other steps: collect, sort and process. The energy required for these steps will depend on the type of material and, in some cases, on the quality of the source material. For example, half of the energy consumption of the glass industry is used for melting to form the glass. Once the energy used for collecting, transporting, and processing is accounted for, recycling will only reduce energy consumption by around 30%.
Aluminum on the other hand, is relatively easy to recycle whereas paper, may need more processing. Materials such as glass can be recycled indefinitely whereas others, such as plastics, degrade each time they are recycled.
Generally, the amount of energy used for recycling is less than that needed to make new products out of raw materials since the materials are already refined. Recycling also reduces the use of other resources such as water and land area and reduces pollution from the refining processes and end of life disposal.
The energy required for recycling depends on the material
Recycling rates for some materials are relatively high, for example 75% of glass in Europe is recycled and around 74% of paper. While these figures are encouraging, if we look at the big picture less than half of all waste produced in Europe is recycled. Globally, only around 9% of plastic waste is recycled, with Europe achieving around 15%.
We need to be more ambitious, to rethink the design of our products and the end-of-life management and to support initiatives with regulation.
A major challenge for recycling is complex packaging that incorporates multiple materials. So why not consider the end point in the design phase?
Dell have incorporated recyclability into the design of the Latitude laptop range. Latitude laptops have been designed to be 97% recyclable. The laptop contains a removable battery, is free of harmful substance such as mercury, does not use glues or adhesives, contains a modular design, and uses standardized fasteners.
Once the design has been optimized, systems to improve collection rates need to be implemented
In France the national postal company has teamed up with a start-up to offer a new service. The person who delivers the post can leave with the recycling. This facilitates waste management for companies, optimises the use of the postal vehicle fleet and maitains employement.
Regulation is essential to encourage recycling, either in the form of obligations to recycle or limitations on landfill.
Since 2012 EU regulations require 85% collection and 80% recycling of the materials used in PV panels, under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. Investment and research driven by this regulation has resulted in a value chain in which 95% of silicon-based PV modules can be recycled.
Recycling can evidently reduce energy and resource use and the good news is that uptake is increasing, but not quite fast enough. Policy makers must realize that it can take several years to address the technical, economic, and behavioral challenges of recycling value chains.
What if we reuse and repair?
With less new products available we will naturally tend towards optimizing the use of our objects. Reuse and repair will become the norm and business models will evolve from offering ownership to offering services.
With manufacturing limited we will have to prolong the useful life of each object and its constitutive parts. We will rethink the design, the material use, supply chains and business models. Secondhand platforms, repair shops and mutualized services will become standard.
.. and the last R? Reduce?
Having looked at our options to confront the energy crisis we can see that there are concrete and positive steps that we can take. We must however accept that the sum of these actions will not be enough to allow our current consumption model to continue within planetary boundaries. There will be less energy available, and less energy means less stuff. Less stuff means we must optimize the things we have but it also, inevitably, means that we have to reduce the number of things we use and own.
Like Icarus we have flown too close to the sun and we’re losing our feathers fast. A fall is inevitable. The choice we have is how far do we fall and how fast?
We can wait until the change is forced, in which case we will see a buildup of ruptures, each setting of its own snowball effect. In the short-term survival of the richest, in the long-term breakdown of our social structure.
Or we can take proactive action, implement circular value chains in advance, facilitate a technical and behavioral evolution towards a regenerative economy. We can prioritize fairness and equality. We can choose life over stuff.