What sets humans apart from all other animal species? If your answer is our ability to speak, our dexterous hands, our big brains and so on, you only get partial credit. The correct answer, according to Robert Stayton in Power Shift, is our access to vast quantities of energy – mostly fossil fuels – and the ability to use it to meet our needs.
Stayton has a point. Think how easy it is for us to, say, get from one end of the world to another, or to transport goods and products across long distances in time and at costs that were unimaginable prior to the Industrial Revolution.
He, however, argues that humans are fast approaching a stage where they have to rethink this over-reliance on fossil fuels and the stress that it is exerting on our fragile and finite planet.
In the past several years, there has been a growing stream of books praising the virtues of non-polluting and sustainable renewable energy, their declining costs and improving technology.
That is old news by now. A number of such books are now attempting to convince the reader that the time has arrived not just to embrace renewables as an addition to conventional fossil-fuels but rather as a total replacement. The future, in other words, is not all of the above – meaning a mix of renewable and conventional technologies – as President Obama has suggested, but a gradual transition to a new energy system entirely powered by renewables.
In Power shift, Robert Stayton goes even further, inexplicably suggesting that the future is not just 100% renewable but virtually 100% solar. One, of course, can define nearly all forms of renewable energy with the exception of geothermal and tidal, as solar since the sun is ultimately responsible for hydro, wind, biomass as well as all forms of solar energy. But Stayton appears enamored by solar to the exclusion of other renewables.
The book describes how, starting with the Industrial Revolution, humans have gotten hooked on using ever-increasing amounts of fossil fuels, which we have managed to dig out of the ground and burn in prodigious volumes while spewing huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Stayton is convinced that this is unsustainable, which leads to search for alternatives that can gradually replace fossil fuels.
He dismisses the nuclear option and considers carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) of coal as impractical. For reasons that are not entirely clear, he also appears to dismiss other forms of renewable energy – for example biomass, wind, geothermal, hydro, tidal – focusing almost entirely on solar energy – and not any kind of solar but mostly small-scale, distributed solar PVs.
Recognizing that replacing the existing energy system with a new one is daunting, complex and time consuming, he vouches for a draconian transition that he reckons can get us from roughly 100 GW of installed solar PV capacity in 2012 to 100 TW by 2060. That, he says, will be enough to meet the total energy needs of roughly 10 billion people, assuming an average capacity factor of 15% and further assuming that each person can get by with 2 kW of dedicated capacity.
His numbers are not unreasonable – others have suggested that humans can enjoy a decent standard of living with 2 kW of dedicated capacity per person, so long as it is used efficiently.
Realistic? Practical? Acceptable? Stayton recognizes that his proposal requires us to go from a system, which currently meets one-tenth of 1% of our needs from solar PVs to 100% in roughly 45 years.
That requires exponential growth rates sustained over many years. Not impossible, he says, given that solar PVs have grown at an average annual rate of 46% between 2002 and 2012. But that is because the solar PV base was miniscule in 2002. Maintaining such a rate or even half as high would be highly challenging over a long period as is contemplated.
Few would argue with the fact that renewables are on the rise, and the age of fossil fuels may be on the way down as in the latest projections by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which suggests that the future will increasingly be renewable (graph above). The question is no longer if, but how fast.
Why rely entirely on solar PVs, rather than a more balanced and dispersed renewable portfolio, is not entirely clear. Nor is it clear how humanity would find the will, the finances, and the sustained drive necessary to reach the goal. Individuals, clearly, can decide to go solar – and many including the author are making that choice. But to get the entire human race to go solar in unison over a sustained period of time is something else.
Stayton recognizes that he may be swimming against the current as powerful incumbents would do their utmost to stick to the status quo for as long as they could – and that includes oil, gas, coal, nuclear and supporting industries, many of whom are backed by equally powerful politicians.
The book is at its best when it describes the historical context of human addiction to seemingly plentiful and cheap fossil fuels – mostly because we have not been paying for the externalities to date – and the problems that this entails. It falls short where it tries to show us why and how we can kick the habit. It, for example, says relatively little about the regulatory changes that will be central to such a transition and how the incumbent utilities as well as oil, gas, coal and nuclear stakeholders can or should be encouraged to go along with the book’s proposal – the transition to a sustainable fossil-free future.
Whatever it flaws, Stayton cannot be accused of timidity or lack of vision. Moreover, with each passing day, more customers are discovering the benefits of converting to solar PVs. Who knows, perhaps he knows better than the rest of us, and certainly better than the solar skeptics.
Perry Sioshansi is president of Menlo Energy Economics, a consultancy based in San Francisco, CA and editor/publisher of EEnergy Informer, a monthly newsletter with international circulation. He can be reached at [email protected]
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