- Date published:
8:50 am, November 16th, 2020 - 90 comments
Categories: climate change, Economy, sustainability, transport - Tags: degrowth, energy descent, powerdown, susan krumdieck, transition engineering
Really good to see this piece in the MSM on how and why greentech isn’t going to simply replace fossil fuels so we can continue business as usual, but instead we will need to powerdown.
interviewed Christchurch transition engineer Susan Krumdieck, looking at Energy Returned on Energy Invested issues facing transition to a post-carbon economy and society. EROEI is the maths of how much energy it takes to produce energy for other human use. Each tech has its own EROEI.at Stuff
Fossil fuels were able to drive the industrial, consumer and electronic revolutions because you can get 30 – 50 times as much energy as you spend producing it. Or we used to when there were still abundant supplies of easy to access oil and coal. Now we’re on the harder stuff, the EROEI is more like 4 – 5, a level which is economically unviable.
Hydro and geothermal have relatively good EROEI, 30 – 50 and 10 – 20 respectively.
Wind is 10 – 30 in ideal conditions, but New Zealand’s wind patterns don’t provide that and wind is notoriously unreliable.
Solar is from 10 down to zero, as well as the issues of coal being burned in China to produce the panels. (the elephant in the living room of green tech is the amount of fossil fuels needed to be burned to build all the new infrastructure and consumer goods).
Biofuels and hydrogen are close to zero.
It’s not hard to understand the limits of physical reality there. Krumdieck points out that New Zealand is already using the best techs available (hydro and geothermal), and once we look at transitioning all our energy use to that, it’s clear we won’t have enough, let alone for a perpetually growing economy. Her solution? To powerdown, probably to something like the level we had in the 1950s, “a 1950s scale energy budget”,
Krumdieck says start by thinking what that extra load is going to look like in terms of extra dams and geothermal plants having to be crammed into the New Zealand landscape.
Then don’t forget to include a further 2 to 3 per cent of annual energy supply growth to meet sustainability’s “business as usual” economic expectations.
Krumdieck says this is why it is time to flip the thinking. Face reality and accept a downshift philosophy.
Once we factor in EROEI as well as cradle to grave approaches to resource access and use, we come flat up against the physical limits of the world. How would we fit in the extra generation needed, while also creating a fair system of import from other places for our needs that didn’t keep those places in high carbon and pollution output and resource over extraction?
I wrote a post about the Powerdown a few years ago, using the work of pioneers Richard Heinberg and David Holmgren to show that a retraction of energy use wouldn’t collapse society and life into something nasty, brutish and short, but would do the necessary interventions regarding climate and the biodiversity crises while maintaining a decent standard of living for humans.
The Powerdown is a process where societies, in the face of climate change and resource depletion, choose to transition to a post-carbon world sustainably. Sustainably, because we cannot have perpetual growth in a physically finite world. Nor can we ecologically afford for the whole world to have Western middle class lifestyles, but instead we must live within the natural limits of the world in a way that allows that natural world to continually restore itself. Counting carbon and reducing it to zero is not enough.
What sustainability is in that context looks scary to people used to being able to buy whatever they want (should they be able to afford it individually or as a country), but enter stage left the large number of sustainability design theorists and practitioners who have been doing exactly this work on how to live within our means and protect human well being.
Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics, permaculture, many indigenous initiatives, Transition Towns, regenerative agriculture, the Tiny House movement, the local food movements, biomimicry, transition engineering, urban farming, are all examples of established disciplines rich with resources on how we can manage transition and do well. Thing is though, it’s a limited time offer. We act now and fast, or it becomes too late and we lock in future generations to varying degrees of social and economic collapse. Maybe even our own lives.
Krumdieck gives this example,
But Krumdieck says imagine taking a Texan – “a big old guy, with a big old truck” – and sending him to live in Amsterdam for a few years to do his job.
Just because of a change in the system of living, his energy consumption is immediately going to be cut by about 75 per cent.
“He’s still making good money. But he has a small apartment. He walks, bikes, or takes a tram to a small office. He’s using like a fourth the resources he had in Texas. And he’s not going to actually die because of it.”
Krumdieck says we simply have to redesign our lives, so they function on far less energy. And the good thing is people already want such a change. Research of the most-used term in US real estate adverts at the moment demonstrates this.
“In the United States, ‘walkable’ is now the number one property seller. I mean, whuuut?” she drawls.
For those interested, Holmgren did a whole body of work on how to use Australia and New Zealand’s 1950s/1960s built suburban environments into sustainable, future proofed resiliency systems that provide solutions to a whole raft of our current problems (housing, food production, employment, community, transport, climate adaptation) in addition to our urgent climate responsibilities. This is the kind of creative thinking we need right now to shift us out of the neoliberal, reality-denying, tinkering at the edges approach being used by our political and economic leaders.
The value of the Stuff article is that it lays out the problems and invites a discussion about the solutions. What would transition look like in New Zealand if we took the limits of nature seriously and positively designed our economy and communities with those limits as guidance instead of being in denial of them?