Fifty years ago, the OPEC oil embargo made the western world realize that its dream of bountiful low-cost energy was on flimsy ground but, when prices came back down, many political leaders terminated research into renewables because “the energy crisis was over.”
That funding cut led to my appointment as head of the Solar Energy Society of Canada, the only grassroots association left in the country to argue for alternative energies. My lobbying strategy was that, even if governments perceived no economic need to fund renewables, diversification of energy supply was a good thing and there was a growing environmental awareness (even in the 1980s) that more sustainable sources of energy were needed for the future health of our planet.
In 1989, Pons & Fleischmann announced their cold fusion system that would generate unlimited electricity. Again, our eyes glazed over with the promise of more bargain-basement energy than we could ever use. The Toronto Star featured my editorial, “Is our world ready for cold fusion?”, wherein I argued that a promise of unlimited and/or cheap electricity would have the unintended consequence of accelerating depletion of our planet’s other resources, by untethering a major economic constraint on their exploitation.
Lay people can be excused for not understanding the complexities of supply vs demand, thermal vs electric, intermittent vs dispatchable, and many other energy interactions, and their confusion is understandable when we are told of the huge potential from fracking and tarsands, while we see the rapidly-growing evidence that excess carbon emissions are destroying our planet.
In light of this potential danger, advocates of sustainability (including supporters of renewable energy) must argue for the most appropriate use of any energy in every application. Only after demand has been minimized (remember Amory Lovins' concept of 'negawatts') and efficiency has been maximized, should we argue for any supply of green power from solar & wind, green heat from geothermal & bioenergy, and green fuel from ethanol & biodiesel.
Calls for a transition to 100% renewables fail to explain that electricity constitutes only 20% of our energy use. Even if we invest zillions of dollars to electrify every end-use application to rely on a pure-sine-wave carrier, and if we ignore that 85% of secondary energy in homes (66% in commercial buildings) is for low-grade thermal applications of space & water heating, a promise of 100% renewable energy could open a Pandora’s Box.
Solar and wind are inexhaustible, but if PV and turbine vendors promise to install more than enough capacity to meet our current energy load, how long would it be until consumers demand more? Whether we want to alleviate poverty elsewhere on the globe or simply to boost our own affluent lifestyle, this response for more-more-more would be human nature.
If you doubt my thesis, ask yourself if you would change anything in your diet if all types of food became unlimited and free? Or in your vacation plans if aviation fuel were not a cost? Unlimited and free energy would have a dramatic impact on the way we do many things, and many of these impacts could be significantly and profoundly negative in the broader picture.
Low-carbon energy is better than high-carbon, but cheap or excess energy would increase demand to feed our consumerism, and the last innovation our globe needs is a faster and cheaper way to deplete our finite resources. Unless the plan is to relocate to another planet after we pillage this one, we must look beyond the immediate crisis of global warming (yes, it is a crisis and, yes, it is anthropogenic) and consider the wider implications of simply replacing one energy addiction with another.
As I warned almost a half-century ago, any promise that energy could be or should be unlimited and free (regardless of how clean it is) is not a goal which advocates of renewable energy should promulgate. I have always supported green, but covering the world with solar panels or windfarms, without a prerequisite demand for maximum conservation and efficiency, may not benefit humanity because it could eliminate one of the few controls on the exhaustion of our planet’s resources.
First publicly hypothesized in 2015: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/advocates-renewable-energy-careful-what-we-promise-bill-eggertson/
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