The problems with energy transitions and the US system

Posted: May 23rd, 2010 by: h2

Sometimes someone puts things into nice, clear, simple terms, that are basically just.. .well, true. Here’s a good article from, Energy Transition: The Intractability of the Built Environment:

If the solution to a problem is unsufficiently scaled to the size of the problem, then at best we can say it’s a token solution. And token solutions are what the US has been trying out for 40 years, on the matter of energy. 8 billion for High Speed Rail? Sorry, but the restoration of rail in this country is an 800 billion dollar project and that would be just for the first wave. Adoption of electric vehicles, as part of some cultural need to maintain US car culture? Sure, at realistic adoption rates you might be running mostly on EVs in 150-200 years. Switch the powergrid to 100% renewable resources like Wind and Solar in ten years? Not likely. But maybe if you are willing to withdraw the entirety of US armed services from overseas, devote the entire military budget for 10 years, and match that workforce with highly skilled workers from the private sector, then maybe you can make a dent by 2020.

When a politician tells you they want to solve for climate change while investing heavily in automobiles and highways, rest assured that is decidedly unserious. When former politicians claim you can have an all renewable powergrid in ten years, that is not helping anyone. When academics tell you that we can be operating in an all renewable world by 2030, but have nothing in their model to account for the energy needed to build that new world, that is simply not good enough. Nota bene: nearly all energy transition plans and especially plans to transition to alternative energy depend on economic growth. All those models assume there will be a sufficient inventory of growth that can be redirected to a different energy architecture. As you contemplate this, also realize that to construct a lower carbon-emitting future poses a question: what is the energy source that will be used, to conduct energy transition?

“When a politician tells you they want to solve for climate change while investing heavily in automobiles and highways, rest assured that is decidedly unserious.” Yes, indeed. Decidedly not serious is exactly how I would put our current response to global warming, soon to be declining global oil supplies, coal extraction, etc.

Here’s just a small part of why such proposals are not serious. Say for electric cars, or even plug-in hybrids. Say use increases. Roads are paid for with gas taxes mostly. You saw a small example of this when gasoline started going over $4 a gallon here. As prices rose, gallon sales dropped, ie, less gas was purchased. As gallon sales dropped, gas tax revenues dropped, and road work deteriorated. It was almost an instant feed-back loop.

As James Howard Kunstler has repeatedly stated, it is sheer lunacy to continue injecting our future revenues into a project that has no future (as he puts it, the biggest misallocation of resources in human history).

But there’s very little that can be done to change this, the US population simply is not able to visualize life without cars and excessive consumption, in fact, such consumption patterns appear to have largely replaced most normal human social actions and systems. Not everyone, not everywhere, but it’s pretty difficult to find major, or more importantly, significant, exceptions.

Since there are not many (but not none, please note, there are instances of groups of people reversing possibly suicidal behavior patterns in history) examples of people, especially large groups of people, leaving negative behaviors behind by actual choice and personal change, that idea is something we can hope for, but only if we realize how unusual it would be if we actually started engaging in drawdowns of consumption, population expansion, resource abuse and overuse, and began to actually examine what a sustainable world might look like.

The weird thing about living in a sustainable world is it’s going to happen one way or the other, living unsustainably just is not one of the options we have. Though we can certainly resist this certainty as long as possible, thus consuming even more of our future in the process.

It’s no accident, given the current mindsets governing us, that our solutions to all our current major issues, especially financial, are to borrow more. We just can’t visualize living with less, after all, so the only logical outcome is to borrow more. It’s really sad to watch this, tragic more than anything else. In the future I guess people will look back and ask themselves, what were they thinking? They had all the information, the evidence was there, but they still kept setting up new big box stores with huge parking lots, then pretending that what they bought there was a substitute for any life that was actually worth living.

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