Modern energy transition defined

Vestas wind turbine factory

Energy transition, in its modern form, is an unprecedented international effort to replace the dominant technologies that supply power to the global economy. Unlike most other technological advances, the process is neither spontaneous nor opportunistic. Nor is it simply about “better” energy supply. Instead, energy transition is the principal component of what is essentially a mandated worldwide pollution response and cleanup campaign. The targeted pollutants are anthropogenic greenhouse gases identified through international agreement by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and several industrial chemicals based on fluorine.

Energy transition is a response intended specifically to end emissions of carbon dioxide, which are produced by fossil fuel combustion and which account for the largest portion – up to 75 percent – of the pollutants targeted by the UNFCCC. The cleanup of carbon dioxide is a separate component of the worldwide campaign, and is technically and politically at the development stage. If and when fully deployed, it will reduce the proportions of atmospheric carbon dioxide to acceptable levels.

Energy transition involves four major economic sectors of the global economy: electricity generation, transportation, heavy industries (such as cement and steel manufacturing), and building/home operations. In each of these sectors, the core transition objective is to replace all energy conversion devices that emit carbon dioxide pollution with energy conversion devices that do not. Infrastructure, transmission systems and processes built around these devices are to be replaced or modified accordingly.

These objectives follow an established development pathway known as the innovation chain: scientists and engineers – in private enterprise and in government sponsored laboratories – develop zero carbon technologies that are adopted by individuals and organizations through market diffusion. To manage the development, timing and extent of adoption, subnational and national governments intervene in the development and diffusion process through public-private partnerships, regulations or direct control.

To maintain essential energy supply in the world economy, and to provide the energy needed to carry out transition, the process of energy transition itself demands unprededented focus and coordination. The severe and worsening warming effects of carbon dioxide pollution worldwide make it imperative that the phase out of polluting technologies and systems, and the phase in of non polluting (zero carbon dioxide) equivalents, occurs globally and in the shortest possible time frame.

photo: Vestas wind turbine factory

Climate Change: focused analysis, focused action

Carbon dioxide is invisible, odourless and non-toxic. It is an essential component of the atmosphere – a greenhouse gas that keeps the surface of the planet much warmer than it would be otherwise. As such, it is in no way a threat to human well-being. Yet now, carbon dioxide is effectively a dangerous pollutant because the fossil fuel-based energy conversion devices (ECDs) that power the world economy burn fossilized hydrocarbons, and in the process discharge some 30 billion tonnes of this otherwise benign gas into to the atmosphere every year. This steady build-up of CO2 is altering the proportions of atmospheric gases, the result of which is now common knowledge: climate change. The prognosis is not good. If an effective response strategy is not implemented as soon as possible, as early as 2065 the world’s coastal cities may be under water and many settled parts of the world too hot to support human habitation.

Public awareness of the situation is increasing, but timely and effective action lags as the world struggles to bring the two root problems into focus.

Firstly, humans populations are growing, and in the process relentlessly degrading the biosphere. We are burning forests and clearing land for agricultural and industrial development, systematically releasing very large amounts of natural carbon stored in vegetation and in soils. Cleared agricultural lands worldwide are fertilized with nitrogen, which releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more potent than CO2. Emissions from this kind of environmental exploitation are thought to account for up to one third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Among the remedies: checking population growth, planting millions of trees, and restricting the use of artificial fertilizers.

The second part of the problem involves a technical miscalculation. Since the industrial revolution, various types of energy conversion devices have transformed the chemical energy of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) into mechanical and heat energy. The energy produced has been used to generate electricity, propel all manner of vehicles, make steel and concrete, prepare countless meals, and mow a lot of lawns.

Fortunes were made bringing these energy conversion devices to market and constructing the complex domestic and industrial systems for which they provide power. More fortunes were made supplying the fossil fuel for those devices. While all of these economic benefits were occurring, only a few scientists – John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius, Guy Callender among them – had the presence of mind to calculate how the exhaust from fossil fuel-based energy conversion devices would impact the thermodynamics of the atmosphere.

Although the miscalculation multiplied by orders of magnitude and eventually became part of the wallpaper of modern life, it is important to recall the initial, fundamental, and rather simple error: that is, energy conversion devices that burn fossil fuels increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Period. That being the root problem, the solution is correspondingly simple: replace all energy conversion devices that add fossil-source carbon dioxide to the atmosphere with energy conversion devices that do not. Essentially this is a pollution response and cleanup operation, the core task, the hinge on which all manner of system changes take place – including removing carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere.

From an engineering perspective, the world already has the necessary hardware at hand. However, deployment of said hardware is not as speedy as some might hope. Deployment remains subject to the constraints of conventional economics. Its not like World War II, when government war policy saw automobile assembly lines become tank assembly lines in a matter of weeks. But that could change.

From a policy perspective, the miscalculation will be remedied when the global community classifies climate change as a symptom of carbon dioxide pollution, and focuses on rapid phase out of the mechanical devices – in the electricity, transportation, heavy industrial, and building sectors – which are the source of that pollution. The ensuing pollution response and cleanup operation will of course transform the energy space.

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.