A New Narrative

Designing a new Narrative

Any planning process must start with an evaluation of where we are. To some degree the adjoining commentary' Weighing the Future' may achieve that. The next step is to establish what our choices are.

The conclusion from what is written there is that there is coming a time where resource shortages accompanied by steep price rises of essential commodities are inevitable and likely to happen soon. Based on events of 2007/2008 they are likely to lead to economic instability and threats to existing levels of prosperity on a wide scale with any associated political fallout. Fallout that will substantially threaten existing social order.

That is one part of the story that exists at the moment.The other part is that we are being offered as solutions to our problems various 'business as usual' (BAU) scenarios that will apparently solve our problems.

Unfortunately almost all planning for the future is currently based on todays delivery systems. Which has as it's assumptions that our present consumption can be met at it's current level across the board indefinitely.

Take for example the use of individual motorised means of travel. A transfer to electric vehicles is seen as a solution. Yet the current push in this direction takes little account of how the electricity will be generated for such vehicles. It takes no account of the continuing need to imbed fossil fuel within the structure of the vehicle. There is little real debate particularly in NZ about how a really usable public transport system is likely to operate. There is a reluctance to include planning for walking and bicycles in architectural or local body planning to the same extent that provision for private vehicle parking for example exists.

What about the capacity of renewables for electricity generation? Renewable energies (including hydropower) has grown by far less than the global increase in total energy consumption in the last decade. Unfortunately renewables cannot provide continuity and controllable supply.

That advanced economies depend on the reliable and permanent delivery of power to every socket poses a real challenge to grid operators. Overcapacity has to be built into the system as does paying for it through a tariff structure that inevitably favours larger users and gives little benefit to conservation or adoption of passive renewable measures such as solar water heating.Overall, our global energy delivery system continues to be as dependent on fossil fuels as ever before, or even more so.

Renewable technologies are mostly based on fossil fuel inputs, which are either used during the manufacturing of plant, or as with biofuels during production and processing. The reality is that PV and wind power is extremely unlikely to be able to replace the power supply demand currently enjoyed in a steady reliable manner without reducing our consumption patterns substantially.

It has been suggested that the batteries of electric cars could help provide this. If this was applied to Britain with a current private fleet of 28.5million vehicles; 96.5 million battery operated electric cars with 40 kWh batteries each fully available for storage, (e.g. no longer able to be driven) would be needed for adequate storage. The difficulties of our luxurious lifestyle abound....

For those suggesting a nuclear option: regardless of long term risks, this technology too has a number of substantial downsides, among them the inability to control output according to demand, high cost, and again dependence on fossil fuels both for the construction and the mining of uranium. Uranium too, is a non-renewable resource, particularly if we planned to scale up nuclear power to keep up with demand.

We really do face some challenges.

The concept of biofuels has some transitional advantages should their sensible and strategic use be prioritised. However, one of the biggest challenges of all renewable (green) fuels is their capacity to take good land out of the production of food.

If we were to try and manufacture from biomass what we currently use from fossil fuels we would quite simply run out of land.

I have not mentioned coal except now to say that 'clean coal 'claims are complete myth at this time and coal should play a minor role in a carbon constrained world.

Ultimately then we may be forced to concede that our present consumption habits, based on todays energy delivery systems are unlikely to break our dependence from fossil fuels and second, as fossil fuels become more expensive, so do these "alternatives". Or put another way, there is no way to extend current energy usage patterns and delivery systems into the future in any prolonged and sustainable sense.

I agree with Hannes Kunz (IIER) that we need to start at the other end if we are to find a way of surviving in a benign way on this planet. He recommends the development of approaches that radically break with a fossil fuel base.

“The only meaningful way of looking at the future of energy delivery and application technologies would be to build energy systems based on an assumption that renewable technologies have to provide the entire amount required by our societies, and then to reshape societies so they are in line with what and how these technologies can deliver.

Only when applying this (what is probably considered radical) view, we would be able to model a sustainable and reliable energy future. Once we have figured out how this can work, we may still consider how to make the best use of our remaining fossil fuels, but going the other way will just fool us into believing that we have solutions, until we recognize we don't.”

Fortunately there are some indications that progress on a political and wider front can be made. There remain however a lot of distractions from the reality of where we are currently standing.

Amidst all the clamouring of the Mexican gulf disaster, a mid-June 2010 vote in the US Senate saw the final rounds of a bill enacted that will see a 'cap' coming on the carbon emissions of US energy producers and industry. While there will still be some protection of existing plant it looks clear that a 'cap' of some description is coming.

This may well set the scene in the long term for some rules regarding trading partners associated with the US, such as NZ which are linked to carbon emissions and it will not be before time if/when that eventuates. Amidst all the support in recent decades for  free market economies, BAU seems extraordinarily reluctant to come to terms with including costs associated with preserving our ultimate 'capital' into any economic equations.

It is disappointing, that higher energy prices appears to be the only motivator that promotes further critical cerebral engagement by the wider population in the absence of otherwise robust and accurate debate.

We should thus be preparing for a limit to technolgies that are associated with high carbon outflow as these may in any case be forced on us in the future.

What we all need to be doing is contributing in some way to substantially reducing oil or indeed any unnecessary consumption for the benefits of ourselves and those in the future, in the next few years.

At such a time there is also opportunity for those who are prepared. Creating a new Narrative is about what is needed for our communities and ourselves in terms of being prepared for a rapidly changing world.