On a Pachyderm’s Derriere: Renewable Energy in a Sustainable World

In the greater scheme of things, direct energy may be little more important than a pimple on an elephant’s butt. Granted it would have to be a pretty big pimple, but the point is that meeting the climate challenge depends upon how energy is used much more than how it is supplied.

This is not some casual conclusion I came to while washing the car. In fact, it is not even my conclusion. It is the message of Richard Heinberg and David Fridley in their new book Our Renewable Future. Recognizing the true potential of renewable energy technologies to contribute to a sustainable world involves understanding the broader context of earthly human activity.

Total consumption represents energy’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions contribution to global warming. Less than a quarter of that total is in the form of electricity supply—the pimple if you will. Consumption—the pachyderm’s butt—is what Heinberg and Fridley refer to as embodied energy.

Embodied energy is the sum of all energy used in the production of goods and services. According to this analysis, even replacing all fossil and nuclear electric generating sources with renewable energy will simply not prevent the world’s plunge into the climate cauldron.

Heinberg and Fridley point to a number of examples that many in the renewable energy sector tend to overlook when describing the promise of these technologies. In pursuit of clean energy deployment opportunities, there can be a tendency to ignore the other 80 percent of life that contributes to climate change.

I have written before about the absolute necessity of developing response strategies across the full policy spectrum. Our Renewable Future speaks more substantively and eloquently than ever I could to the importance of context.

Consider the humble slab of concrete and its contribution to climate change. According to Heinberg and Fridley:

…the cement industry is responsible for only one-quarter of one percent of total U.S. energy consumption, it is the most energy-intensive of all manufacturing industries. [emphasis mine] The main fuels consumed in the process are coal and petroleum coke, though natural gas and oil are also used.

It’s hard to imagine cement being made any other way, but it’s also hard to imagine living without it: concrete is essential to nearly all building construction, as well as to roads, dams, aqueducts—and pads for wind turbines.

Cement paves the path between the world’s populations. It is estimated that annual per capita global consumption of concrete amounts to upwards of 3 tons. This may sound a silly number. Yet it is not very hard to believe.

I know from my own experiences living in Nicaragua and other parts of Central America that the use of cement crosses all economic classes. With the exception of indigenous forest populations, I can think of few peoples that do not or have not come to rely on this foundation of the built environment.

Consider the embodied energy used in other sectors. For example, in the U.S. agriculture accounts for over 20 percent of total energy consumption. Of that amount, only about 13 percent is used in production. The remaining 87 percent is used to process, package, prepare, transport and support the other components of the farm to table supply chain.

CO2emissions from the manufacture of one pair of stone-washed jeans is equal to the amount of carbon that is sequestered by 6 trees per year. (Heinberg and Fridley) Let us not forget process heat, for which few renewable alternatives exist at scale. Even “the industrial processes that are used to manufacture renewable energy sources (wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, flat plate collectors, and solar concentrators) need high temperatures, as do factories that make electric trains, electric cars, computers, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), and batteries or their components.”

The importance of placing energy supply in its proper context was made acutely apparent to me the day following the webinar, as I came across Bill McKibben’s recent Vanity Fair editorial “A World At War.” The article’s premise is that to successfully combat climate change will take an effort the moral equivalent of World War II.

McKibben references the work of Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. The professor lays out an incredibly detailed state-by-state pathway to convert the U.S. to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Although I question Jacobson’s assumption that all energy sectors can be electrified by 2050, McKibben accepts the assumption. He goes on to say that even though this would be a gargantuan task, it could be accomplished. In support of the possibility he cites the industrialization of the U.S. during World War II as evidence that it can be done. Basically the entire military-industrial complex of the nation was turned to the manufacture of war materiel.

I will leave a detailed discussion of how McKibben thinks it can be done for another day. I admit that it is difficult for me to imagine how his strategy could become a reality. For purposes of this column, however, I am willing to concede the possibility and I respect his recognition of just how large an effort is required.

What I am not willing to concede is the assumption that the world can do business as usual AND defeat climate warming if we just put our minds, policies, manufacturing skills and investment dollars to the task. Accepting Heinberg and Fridley’s argument that focusing on energy supply will not cure the cause of climate change—any successful climate strategy must address embodied energy.

In the last analysis how we use energy is as important as how we supply it. No matter how successful any effort to swap out renewable for fossil energy sources, without increasing efficiencies and realigning our priorities and practices, the war on carbon will be lost.

In closing, a graphic image to help you visualize just how far we have to go to win McKibben’s war. Maintaining a U.S. standard of living will require equivalent resources and atmospheres of four earths—three times our maximum possible budget. Business as usual is simply no longer an option.

This article was originally published by Civil Notion and was republished with permission.

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Joel Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion ( www.civilnotion.com ). Joel recently returned to private practice after serving as the Executive Director of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council.  He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; and, sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. He has recently taken on the duties of managing partner for LAC Solar Light, Inc. a B-type corporation working in the Americas. Joel can be contacted at thejbsgroup78@gmail.com .

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