Living and growing with energy: what alternatives?
If there is a consensus on this earth, it is that life is worth living. Far from being perfect, which would be very boring, the conditions of this life must be constantly improved, this is called striving for progress. As we realize the limits of the burden that human activity can place on the environment, we need even more progress. But there is no consensus on the objectives to be pursued nor on the means to be implemented. However, this is hic et nunc (here and now) that these means are available to achieve the objectives we have set ourselves.
Today, 83% of the world’s energy needs are met by fossil fuels. Their use is essential and will continue as long as the exploration of new deposits and their exploitation are more attractive than the alternatives, including the positive and negative externalities (1).
Let’s imagine for a moment that ‘sustainable’ equipment should only be designed, built and operated with ‘sustainably sourced’ resources and try to estimate how long it would take to make a full ‘transition’. With their lower ERoEI (energy efficiency on energy input) and low availability, reaching this goal could wait until all hell freezes over.
Moreover, human needs do not only consist of energy intake and must be met during each of our short lives. The answer to this challenge does not lie in the mortifying ideology of sacrifice on behalf of future generations and the criminality of not doing so.
A concept of sober and happy degrowth is nevertheless proposed. It can be a goal for individuals or small circles of like-minded people. But that has no value in a society whose diversity and disparities are recognized and praised. Or else a totalitarian temptation is expressed, which is always unacceptable.
The discovery and exploitation of fossil and mineral resources must continue for two reasons: to meet our current life aspirations and make necessary progress. The demonization that is currently taking place is in itself diabolical.
For their part, the alternatives will not be made more attractive in a sustainable way by tax incentives and subsidy mechanisms imposed to the detriment of the community (which already works in an unsustainable way for at least 83%). They must use resources efficiently, also taking into account their positive and negative externalities. Very strong constraints apply to these technological developments; “other, different, alternative” is not sufficient, it must be clearly superior.
One of the solutions is known and available: nuclear power in its best current form (Chinese EPR), or in a form demonstrated on a large scale but abandoned for political reasons (Superphénix breeder reactor in Creys-Malville, France), or in possible modular forms that have yet to be developed and deployed.
There are also known solutions, such as hydroelectricity, which is already well established and plays a vital role. But others are less available, such as solar energy, which does nothing at night and little under the clouds (between 75% and 90% of their installed capacity is not used), wind energy, which is not used at night or must be feathered in the event of a storm (60-80% useless), biomass, which only grows once a season, or geothermal energy, which is local.
The chronic and chaotic unavailability of the latter can be countered by the storage of electricity, the start-up of gas-fired power plants in the event of a black-out, synthetic fuels, the improvement of consumption efficiency and the increased recycling. However, these solutions also have their limitations, inefficiencies and problematic externalities. They require an unwarranted amount of funding. No one is really attached to it because no valid economic model is presented to convince investors. These are hopes to which politicians stubbornly cling for no reason, despite the realities. We end up with tax games that eat taxpayers’ bread and create nothing.
Primary sources or secondary vectors of energy, everything must be considered in a whole whose mission is not ideological. It is about providing society with energy in a safe and useful form, anytime and anywhere. Trusting in human inventiveness, we can be certain that, little by little, one by one, the best answers to the challenge we face will become reality, and even with other solutions that no one has yet imagined. It will then be possible to reduce the share of fossil fuels in our energy mix. This cannot be ordered or planned, it must be given the necessary time.
(1) In 2019, so-called “sustainable” energies contributed only 45% to the weak growth (1.3%) in global energy consumption.
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