I am advocating the above alternative renewable energy ideas in my Real Green platform. We must reduce the status quo of on demand and discretionary towards intermittency, seasonality, and low tech. Where low tech, seasonal, and intermittency can be adequate they should be applied. The current approach is anything more potent and efficient is applied when affordable and with debt these days so much can be afforded. The problem then becomes malinvested resources in systems without resilience and sustainability. Further the problem becomes expensive investments that then do not meet the requirements of return on investment that all debt must include.
Real Green starts with a localization. Energy intensity and availability can be modulated according to need. Localized efforts are easier to modulate but this does not mean centralized systems need be rejected. It is the application of both to their best comparative advantage that should be the focus. Critical systems could be well stocked 24/7 and less critical not. Other applications could be intermittent and seasonal based on price. The more intermittent/seasonal the less cost. Rural areas could return to a time not too long ago where power was not always there. These areas could be a hybrid off the grid with minimal baseline power. Biomass, solar, wind, animal, plus some fossil fuels could allow them to decouple to an extent. Transport likewise could be adapted to the value of need. Working environments and leisure adapted accordingly.
This is all fine in the theoretical but getting from here to there is really much more complicated because of the sensitivity that economies have to constructive and destructive change. A clear policy with economic support would have to be part of the effort. Education and the creation of a new social compact complete with a new narrative of value is a must. This all is likely too much for a system that currently can barely get along and agree on trivial matters.
This then points to small groups and individuals who are awakened and honest with the science of what is going on around us. There are many people for a variety of reason that can’t change and or don’t want to. Those who can should. It will be those who can and do that will blaze the trail. At the national level with governments and business there is an effort at change but one must realize this change is in context of the status quo. Instead of adapting to intermittency and lower energy density of renewables the effort is to make renewables adapt to the status quo as if the status quo in nonnegotiable. While these efforts to integrate renewables into the current energy systems are vital they are not the answer.
The answer is relocalization and deindustrialization of at least some parts of the status quo. This is counter to sustainable development that looks towards modernizing when the opposite is needed. It is possible there could be parts of our way of life that remain as they are now and parts that would return to an earlier way of life. The problem with this is corruption. The earlier ways of life are vulnerable to those who remain in the more potent modern status quo of 24/7 power on demand and consumption as needed. This then points to a social compact that would have to ensure the rights of people who voluntarily withdraw some or much of their modernity. It should still include resources such as education, healthcare, and security, etc.
If nothing else some need to make this change to provide the experimentations that will provide experience for greater numbers of people who may take this journey later once the need is mainstream. Governments should be at a minimum supporting some alternative communities or at least not inhibiting them with taxes, zoning, and negative economic penalties that come with not being status quo. The time is now and the necessity of it great. This will require sacrifice and lower physical reward but if done correctly provide meaning and actualization that survival strategies naturally enlist.
The overwhelming problem with replacing fossil energy with renewable energy systems is the much higher embodied energy of renewable energy infrastructure. It takes a lot more steel and concrete to produce 1MWh of electricity from wind power than it does for nuclear power, coal or natural gas turbines. This makes EROI relatively weak. The reason for this is simple: the low power density of the resource. It is unavoidable, because we cannot change the nature of the resource. It is why I generally favour the expansion of nuclear power over industrial scale renewable energy, but as an engineer I look for ways of making both systems work.
It will therefore be very difficult to build the required capacity to replace existing energy consumption in an environment in which fossil fuel EROI is already declining. But there are some strategies that will help.
Making wind turbines and solar power plants bigger may be useful to a limited extent. Under equal wind conditions, bigger turbines require more materials per MW, because the mass of the turbine increases with the cube of height, but turbine swept area (and power) increases with the square of height. However, increasing wind speed with increasing tower height means that bigger turbines still come out ahead, but we can expect diminishing returns with increasing scale beyond a certain point. Solar power plants also demonstrate better EROI with increasing scale; so bigger is generally better.
Minimise the need for energy storage. Many renewable energy advocates assume that storage will eliminate problems of intermittency, by absorbing excess electrical power during times of plenty and releasing it during lulls in wind and solar power production. However, this strategy has severe problems because it implies further embodied energy and energy losses, in a system for which EROI is already weak. An energy store is basically another power station; absorbing intermittent energy and spitting out a smaller amount of controllable energy on demand. It takes money and energy to build it and maintain it and storage implies losses. A better strategy is to adapt demand to supply and to store end-use energy in limited amounts where it is relatively cheap; i.e. as hot and cold in suitably insulated containers. Labour laws and working arrangements need to shift such that people work when power is abundant and take time off when it is not. The problem can be further mitigated by using a mixture of different renewable energy sources over a dispersed geographical area, using the electrical grid to deliver the energy.
Renewable energy will struggle to meet existing transport and heating loads, because of the sheer amount of energy that they consume. To a limited extent, hybrid vehicles allow for modest amounts of renewable energy to supplement fossil fuels. A reduction in the weight and power of vehicles, the introduction of regenerative braking and generally a reduction in the number of private vehicles by increasing the capacity of public transport will all help. Generally, transport needs to shift to different modes that use smaller amounts of (preferably intermittent) energy. Hence my advocacy of bulk freight transport in hydraulic capsule pipelines, which are basically unmanned underground canals between two distant points. They propel large volumes of freight at low speed; can be powered by grid electric pumps (without any energy storage) or direct mechanical wind power. They can also vary their speed depending upon energy availability. Direct electric powered buses, coaches and trucks on highways can also absorb intermittent electricity using variable speed limits. They can transport people between motorway service stations, and shorter range vehicles can then transport them into cities or other specific locations. In these ways, transport is both energy efficient and works off direct grid electric power, without any losses or costs associated with energy storage.
Heat storage within homes and the use of ground source heat pumps; allow smaller amounts of intermittent grid electric power to provide heating, or even direct renewable heating from a wind turbine or solar heating panel.
There are other strategies that can be made to work as well. Wind machines can be simplified to provide direct mechanical power in niche applications. An aerial rope way is a crude but effective transport system that could be powered by direct mechanical wind energy in some specific applications. A wind turbine could also be directly coupled to a piston air compressor or a hydraulic pump and used to power equipment without the need for complex electrical generators or rare earth elements. Again, we are reducing embodied energy by eliminating complexity. Also, clusters of wind turbines can be used to generate direct hydraulic power that then powers a central ground based electrical generator. The turbines themselves would have few mechanical parts. The central ‘hydraulic power station’ would essentially be a hydroelectric plant without the dam. Huge flywheels could be coupled to its turbines to store limited amounts of mechanical energy prior to electricity generation.
We cannot avoid the shit that is coming. But lateral thinking will help. ��,��z