We need more energy than we can imagine

In terms of energy, the focus of the general public these days seems to be on two things: a transition to ‘green’ sources, and energy preservation. I do not contest the former, but I find the latter really, really strange. I think that energy should be so cheap and abundant that our use of it can increase more steeply than any scenario currently predicts. This seems to be the only route towards a truly sustainable society.

According to Shell, oil, coal and natural gas will remain a major part of the energy supply until 2040. Unsurprisingly, Exxon feels the same way. Interestingly, both companies foresee an increase in total energy demand by 2040 that is ‘not even’ twice the current overall demand. With the dwindling of easily accessible fossil fuel supplies, the carbon peddlers would not be able to keep up with an even more rigorous growth. In fact, they may count themselves lucky if they manage to keep up their current production levels. Any increase in power demand will have to be met by other sources; even with the conservative (in my opinion) growth scenarios put forward by Big Oil.

We are currently witnessing the onset of an energy revolution. Of that much, I am convinced. Fossil fuels will be largely replaced over the following decades by energy from other sources – whether they be sustainable in the definition of most treehuggers (hydro, wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, biomass to some extent) or just so efficient in terms of space and materials that they are virtually unlimited (nuclear). Or both. But that revolution is perhaps not a true revolution, but rather an evolution. And that is probably not good enough. Not just because we need to phase out fossil fuels, but because we may need far more energy than anyone currently foresees.

Here are just two examples why I believe we will need much more energy than we currently think. Firstly, as a (growing) population, we are thirsty. And we need water to quench that thirst, but fresh water reserves are being depleted. Secondly, despite all the talk of ‘closing the loop’, ‘the natural step‘ and the ranting about a lack of recycling and inefficient materials use, we are still mining like crazy and we show no clear signs of ceasing this. At best, we may drop the pace a bit as China’s recent growth spurt flattens out.

In both cases, fresh water production and mining, we are looking at largely unsustainable methods of production. That is: we take stuff from the ground and don’t worry about replenishing those stocks. And in both cases, energy is the vital ingredient in tipping the balance between unsustainable and sustainable methods of production.

Given cheap and abundant energy (in any form, really), the production of perfectly clean, fresh water from the salty oceans becomes economically viable even in places where depletion of millennia-old, underground fresh water stocks is the currently most attractive option.

Likewise, abundance of energy makes recycling more attractive compared to mining new materials. Even if recycling is, in fact, recycling and not downcycling, as it is today for many compounds. True recycling requires the application of a wider scope of separation technologies on a vastly larger scale than occurs today – and that requires energy. So not only enlarging the scale of recycling will increase energy requirements, also the nature of recycling contributes to that increase.

So moving towards a sustainable, closed-loop system of production and consumption requires a lot of energy.

If a sustainable society, which I interpret as a society that can replenish the stocks of materials it uses at the same rate as it uses them, then we need to upgrade our power supply. Not just significantly, but at an unprecedented rate. Energy innovation, therefore, is perhaps the factor that will have the greatest influence on how the world will look as the next generation takes our place.

Against this backdrop, it becomes clear how profound the challenge is that we face today in redesigning and deploying energy systems. Whether left entirely to the free market or aided by (democratic) governments, steps in reforming and expanding our society’s power supply are incremental and cautious. In other words: slow and unambitious. Technological and societal risks and the possibility of overcapacity makes investors weary of undertaking large energy projects. Democratic governments are locked in a status quo of decision making and do not sufficiently recognize the necessity of undertaking large infrastructural projects as their responsibility.

Economic actors and national governments act in their individual interests (and usually, understandably so), even in the face of a -partly- acknowledged shared challenge. In the end, the problem is that we are divided and that we appear to be unable to pull together unless some (nonexistent) central authority forces us to. The possibility or even necessity to drastically review the way we produce and consume apparently is insufficient to get us to move into one direction. What is holding humanity back, it seems, is the illusion of autonomy of individuals.

So what we need is a way to make the generation of (‘green’) power so attractive that we will build more generation capacity than we now think we will ever need. That seems to defy all logic, but it is the way forward. Incidentally, energy is also the only thing that we can afford to view as limitless. No significant amounts of materials are added to our planet, so we have to make do with what stuff we have. Energy is different. The sun continuously blasts 174PW onto our planet. In terms of power generation, overcapacity should be an illusion.

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