The process of energy transition

Wind turbines, Goldendale, Washington

Let us all be clear on the steps required to prevent dangerous climate change and understand the process involved in implementing those steps. Let this understanding inform public discourse so that we are all helping to avert a climate catastrophe.

Carbon dioxide pollution is our adversary, and there are two main sources of it:

  1. Destruction of forests and soils which act as natural carbon dioxide sinks, and
  2. fossil fuel combustion in over a billion energy conversion devices (ECDs) used in electricity generation, transportation and heavy industry around the globe.

Four stroke cycle compression
Energy transition means replacing over a billion ECDs hiding in plain sight.
Population control and land use reform will help restore the planet’s carbon sinks. Replacing fossil fuel-burning ECDs will end fossil fuel combustion. Specifically, electric motors are to replace internal combustion engines. Wind, solar, geothermal (and perhaps fourth generation nuclear) are to replace the thousands coal and gas fired boilers used to generate electricity for the grid and heat for industry.

This replacement – already underway – is at the core of what we call energy transition, a global process which will take time to accomplish. The sooner the better, but as in any transition, features of the old fossil fuel based system will fade out while the new zero carbon system fades in. To maintain a modicum of functionality, the economic order will have to maintain the old system even as it is being replaced.

So as government, industry and the general population undertake their respective responsibilities with respect to energy transition, it will be necessary to work with the process and measure our steps carefully. Outlawing fossil fuels, coal mines, pipelines and fossil fuel-based ECDs would weaken the energy space, and impair its ability to achieve rapid change. Pipelines are needed to service the fossil fuel based ECDs still extant, so consider them as temporary. In all sectors of the economy, replacing fossil fuel-based ECDs will cut off demand and make fossil fuel suppliers obsolete. Catastrophe averted.

The White House and the real change agents

the White House in decline

Anyone with an inkling of social literacy can see Donald Trump has been handed a job that is well beyond his reach. As a result, the once reputable White House is sinking into a political swamp that Mr. Trump expected he would drain. Is this because the White House was not built on solid ground in the first place? Or did the political earthquake of the last US election turn the ground at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave into quicksand?

Whatever the case, Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Accord has been a major, albeit predictable, disappointment. But the international community will carry on regardless. The world will continue to transition away from fossil fuel-based energy systems, building on recent momentum.

For electricity generation, renewable energy is now a cheaper source of primary energy than coal in many parts of the world. Automobiles powered by electric motors are proving themselves to be mechanically superior to those powered by internal combustion engines, and may achieve price parity sooner than expected.

The Paris Accord may only become marginally less effective without the participation of the US federal government. And the US exit may lead to scrutiny regarding what the Paris Accord can and cannot do, on its own, to protect the international community from the time bomb created a century and a half ago when we seized on the economic possibilities of coal, oil and natural gas.

The change agents driving the growing international movement to end anthropogenic carbon emissions are not harried politicians and hair-brained presidents. The real change agents are the world’s car makers, electric grid operators, builders, heavy industries, and landowners. And what they must do collectively – as responsible participants in the world economy – is two-fold: Firstly, transform the energy sector, and secondly, restore the biosphere.

It’s not that complicated. Car makers, electric grid operators, builders, and heavy industries will be replacing energy conversion devices that burn fossil fuels. Electric motors will replace internal combustion engines in the world’s billion-plus motor vehicles. Renewables (and perhaps 4th generation nuclear) will replace coal fired boilers in electricity generation plants. Landowners, will end or even reverse a deeply entrenched tradition of biosphere abuse by farmers, foresters, and developers. It’s also pretty obvious that hundreds of billions of tons of carbon pollution will have to be removed from the atmosphere. All of this is doable with available methods and technologies.

The international community is beginning to make a concerted effort to deal with climate change – even if a former reality TV star and his willfully ignorant followers can neither comprehend the problem nor imagine the solutions.