Monday, May 04, 2009


The Challenge of a New Energy System

Everyone is madly engaged now in developing all kinds of new energy technologies to generate electricity, convert biomass, and in other ways produce energy that can keep industrial civilization and the consumer society going, and — the Holy Grail of the global economic system — keep us on the path to infinite growth.

Let’s review the fossil fuel energy system that keeps the show running now. Simply put, it has two main characteristics.

First, the system powers itself. Fossil fuels provide the energy to obtain, process, and supply more fossil fuels. It keeps supplying itself with more energy and is therefore self-sustaining.

And second, there is plenty of surplus energy. Fossil fuels also power industrial civilization and the consumer economy. There is lots of energy left over after powering the energy system itself to keep the factories humming, the vehicles rolling, the aircraft flying, the farmers farming, and the consumers consuming.

Now, however, we have come to realize this won’t last forever. That is behind all the enthusiasm for alternative energy sources. But if we are to keep industrial civilization and the consumer society going — not to mention providing the energy source for infinite growth — the new energy system has to fulfill the same two conditions without relying on any fossil fuel inputs. That is, first, the energy system must power itself, and second, there must be a big energy surplus.

At this juncture, all the new energy schemes are in fact dependent on fossil fuel inputs for their bootstrap. The wind turbines, solar panels, ethanol plants, machinery for growing energy crops, the electric cars, their batteries, the factories for making electric cars, and what have you — it is all dependent on fossil fuels. The new energy system must dispense with fossil fuels, power industrial civilization and the consumer economy, and maintain continued economic growth with real-time solar energy.

I doubt that people understand the magnitude of the challenge.

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