Energy or Entropy…

There is, of course, much debate at present about the rate at which energy generation will switch from using hydrocarbon-based to other “alternative” forms, such as solar, wind and tidal- a so-called energy transition.

As a result, the work of a Manitoba-based Czech academic, Vaclav Smil, is gaining increasing attention; being already quietly influential amongst policy-makers. To paraphrase, Smil’s basic thesis, there have been three major energy transitions during the time of Humanity’s existence. First came mastery of fire (using energy from the sun stored in plants); second, farming (which converted solar energy into food); and, third, industrialization, which cycled through coal, then oil, then natural gas to power machines.

Now, according to Smil, we are struggling with the fourth transition, towards using energy sources that use the sun’s direct energy flows, rather than those trapped in hydrocarbon deposits, and do not emit carbon dioxide.

Ironically, whereas previously transitions have involved attempts to move towards use of more energy-dense materials- using Smil’s term- the current transition entails moving back down the power density spectrum. He considers nuclear power a “successful failure”, as it has become (with a few exceptions such as in the PRC) stalled by cost and safety concerns.

As Smil points out, it is all very well deciding to replace hydrocarbons with other sources, but generating the equivalent levels of energy to maintain current economic output could entail using 100 and perhaps a 1,000 times more land area to do so, which will create its own concerns and negative economic and political consequences.

So, predicting the rate and scale of the fourth transition is much more difficult than many forecasts (even those with a range of outcomes) assume, because the core hydrocarbons (coal, oil, natural gas) still supply 90% of primary energy, a level which is actually higher than in 2000, when nuclear energy and hydro-power were more important contributors than they are now. In other words, assumptions that hydrocarbon dependency can rapidly decrease are simply wrong, with generations rather than decades the more likely timeframe for a significant change to occur.

Naturally, such issues cannot be divorced from those of climate change and the impact upon it of a relentless desire for growth, which underpins all modern, fossil-fueled economies. More growth requires more use of hydrocarbons, as well as of fertilizers, particularly as developing economies move up the energy use spectrum, while at the same time demanding more resource intensive foodstuffs, such as meat. These factors mean that, in the absence of what one might term a fundamental change in approach, the chances of any material near-term reduction in global hydrocarbon use actually occurring are quite remote. Some fresh breakthrough in energy technologies such as cheap and reliable energy storage would be required to shift the transition.

In reality, all predictions and models of the future energy sources and uses are inherently unstable, and better seen as no more than indicative of likely trends. Requiring or expecting certainty is simply foolish.

At Awbury, we are constantly updating our own view of over-arching trends that can have wide impact, recognizing that one has to build uncertainty and redundancy into any risk model if one is to avoid being “mentally captured” by a particularly plausible and overly neat paradigm. In other words, we have learnt to deal with entropy.

The Awbury Team

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