Energy – Energy is what makes the world go round, so it’s important we’re able to figure out ways to make our society’s lifeblood sustainable for the long term. 

When speaking about sustainable energy, there are really three perspectives you can take

  • National security – If you’re a fan of nationalism and protecting your chunk of rock, then creating a sustainable energy source that’s not reliant upon any other rocks is important. 
  • Limited resources – After doing some basic math and looking into the future, you’ll quickly realize that the fossil fuels we’re burning today are going to run out. Finding a sustainable solution to replace this finite resource is pretty important for our future. 
  • Saving the planet – If you’re a fan of the planet and want to maintain its natural beauty, then replacing fossil fuels with “green” renewable solutions is high on your to-do’s. 

I’m personally a fan of saving the planet because you know… It’s what made us primates and supports our survival, so keeping it around a bit longer would be nice. 🙂 – But even if you’re not convinced by climate scientists about the effect humans are having through carbon emissions, you’ll at least care about limited resources or national security. 

The topic of sustainable energy can quickly fall into the realm of political opinion or economics, but this week’s book ignores all subjectivity, strictly sticking to the laws of physics. Asking – What are the physical limits of us achieving a 100% renewable energy society?

If you only had time to read one actionable book on energy “Sustainable Energy – Without the hot air” would be the one. David (the author) actually saw it as so important, that he made it completely free and available online. If committing to a book is too much, then I recommend watching this talk, which gives you an intuitive understanding of the main points. 

I stumbled across this book through a video of Bill Gates giving his top Climate Change book recommendations, with this book topping the list. 

Physics > Opinion

From the very beginning, this author grabbed my attention. David’s background is in physics and throughout this journey, it shows in his thought process when approaching problems. 

Simplicity is David’s main goal… When tackling a problem as complex as transitioning the entire planet to sustainable energy before 2050 it’s easy to get bogged down by information overload, but this is not the case here. This is a simple book, but very detailed in its analysis of what’s actually needed to transition towards a sustainable world. 

The reason David is able to simplify such a daunting task is due to the fact that he ignores all economic and political issues, strictly focusing on what the laws of physics limit us to. This approach gives society a clear plan on what’s needed for a sustainable future, without anyone shoving their opinion into the mix. 

The two sides to energy – Consumption or production, lead to two outcomes… one positive and the other negative.

The positive scenario is if we’re able to consume less than we produce, leading to a world of abundance. 

The negative scenario is if we consume more than we produce, leading to a world of scarcity, which is the current trajectory. 

The simple, but impossibly difficult goal is for us to ensure that the sustainable energy we produce can satisfy our ever-growing need for more consumption. Throughout this book David tackles each side of this stack a chapter at a time, bouncing between consumption and production – His example focuses on the U.K., but the simple calculations can be applied to any country. 

This work was completed around 2007, so the below estimates for the U.K. most likely increased, but it will give you an idea of what a completed stack looks like… 

Sadly, this above stack is only considering the physical limitations of our surroundings and not what’s economically feasible or politically acceptable… Below is a more realistic stack when including politics and capitalism, which is horrifying… 

Like me, I’m sure you’re confused by “kWh/d” – This is another simplification that really helps personalize energy consumption and production. Whenever you’re looking into energy-related stuff there tends to be a bunch of unreadable metrics in millions or billions – David personalized this by reducing everything down to “Kilowatt-hours per day” for a single citizen of the U.K. For example: in the consumption stack (right) above the total Kilowatt-hours a single person would consume in the U.K. is 125 per day. 

After coming to the realization that any mix of renewables will have to be the size of a country and getting this done with the time we have is basically impossible… It’s time to pull a few plans together. 

A mix of plans

In the end, David shares five different plans on how the U.K. could transition to a zero-carbon society before 2050, but he mentions this is just five of many. The avoidance of prescribing what any country should do was so high that David created an online sustainable energy calculator that different countries could use to get a rough outline for what’s needed for their 2050 zero-carbon future (U.K. and Australia examples). 

Below are the five main plans offered up for the U.K. based on energy consumption, population, land size, topology, location, etc… 

Each plan is different, but there are common threads across all of them such as… 

  1. Electrifying Transport – Almost all transport will need to be electric, including public transit, semi-trucks, etc. The transport that we’re unable to electrify (e.g. airplanes, jets, rockets, etc.) will need to be fueled via biofuels. Plus, the charging network created for all of this should go two ways, so vehicles are able to put energy back into the infrastructure in times of high energy consumption or low production. 
  2. Heating consumption reduced – The buildings we work and live in are horrible at this energy efficiency thing… So we’ll need to replace our heating systems with “Heat Pumps”, install smart thermostats, and better building insulation. 
  3. Limited “Green” sources – There are four main sources we’re able to produce energy from at scale with the time we have… Your own renewables, “clean coal” (controversial I know), nuclear, or convincing another country to link up and sell their renewable energy to you. 

The above five plans (D, N, L, G, and E) reflect public opinions on how we should tackle sustainable energy, which will vary by country and government.

  • Plan D (“domestic diversity”) – This plan is for the country unwilling to outsource any of its energy and want to be completely self-sustaining. Most national security folks fall into this category. 
  • Plan N (NIMBY – Not in my back yard) – This plan represents those unwilling to industrialize their homeland with wind farms (onshore/offshore), solar farms, etc. Meaning they’re more than happy to outsource the majority of their energy or use a good amount of nuclear. 
  • Plan L (No nuclear) – These people are disgusted by the idea of nuclear, so they’ll need to compensate for an industrialized renewable energy landscape and hefty outsourcing, depending on where they’re located on the planet. 
  • Plan G (Green Lovers) – These people love the planet and hate coal, as well as nuclear. So they’ll need to ramp up all the renewables on their homeland while outsourcing what they can. 
  • Plan E (Economics) – This plan takes place in a world where there’s a big carbon tax and capitalists get to choose what we do. In this scenario, nuclear wins out due to it being the most economically attractive. 

The main thing you should take away here is that no matter where you live, what the economy looks like, and who’s running the country there’s going to be trade-offs. Each trade-off has its pros and cons, so we all need to figure out what we’re willing to give… 

Our “David vs. Goliath” moment

The challenge ahead is an impossibly hard one… 

This book really opens your eyes to just how technically difficult it is to move towards a zero-carbon society within 30 years (2050). But that’s not the whole story… 

Every country on earth is increasing its quality of life through globalization and selling stuff. We, humans, like to metricize everything, so life quality is usually tracked through GDP. Below you’ll see that whenever a country increases its GDP, consumption of energy follows. 

This increase in energy consumption means we’ll need to create more renewable energy infrastructure around the world, turning our hard problem into something that’s almost impossible. 

With that said, every person on this planet deserves a high-quality life, so embedding this increased energy consumption into our assumptions going forward is a “non-negotiable”. 

Also, there’s a concept called the “Jevons Paradox”, which concerns most sustainable energy folks. The idea is that the more efficient something becomes the more people will use that thing, so thinking that demand for energy consumption is going to stay the same or decrease over time is a mistake. 

Lastly, I want you to remember that the above plans avoided all economic and political issues. Once we bring back the politicians, corporations, activists, and the general public, this entire thing gets more complex and slow. Two things we don’t have time for… 

As I’ve said in previous posts. 

Turning away from big scary problems won’t make them disappear, it will only make them worse. It’s time we collectively stare down the largest problems facing society and take quick decisive action. 

Until next time my fellow Wanderers! 🙂