Kicking the Fossil Fuel Habit

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This is the first-draft of the Preface of my book:Ten Technologies to Save the World – Powering the Green Revolution.Copyright©2009 Tom Rand, Eco Ten Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission..

It is sometimes claimed that we cannot do without fossil fuels. That is false. 

When I first began writing this book, I didn’t think we could break the fossil fuel habit. Not in one generation, and certainly not without a great deal of nuclear, and what is optimistically called ‘clean coal’. In exploring renewable technologies like large-scale solar, wind and geothermal, the engineer in me changed my mind. It is possible to change our energy use to 100% renewables. This book is a celebration of that idea.

But the pragmatic venture capitalist in me tempers that celebratory mood. To kick our fossil fuel habit we need to deploy resources on a scale not seen since World War II, generate a degree of international political co-operation beyond anything we’ve yet done, and at the same time develop a new set of economic rules that finally put a prohibitive price on carbon.

These are daunting challenges. Why do it?

There are lots of reasons to kick the fossil fuel habit. Energy security, the moral cost of supporting undemocratic regimes who sit on the oil we use, the military cost in blood and treasure in keeping the supply lines open, and getting a leg up on the competition in the next industrial revolution: these are each reason enough to kick the habit.

Talk to a climate scientist though, and it fast becomes clear that one reason stands above all others: severe climate change is coming and it will not be pretty. It won’t just be hotter summers, scarier storms and rising oceans – although that is all true – we will soon have trouble growing enough food to eat. The sense of restrained panic you can hear in their voices as these learned men and women  speak informally reveals more than the legion of scientific papers published on the subject.

The scientific community has known about this problem for decades. Margaret Thatcher called it the ‘greatest threat to our civilization’ when she addressed the U.N. General Assembly back in 1991. We are now in the final innings, this is our last stand, the river card.

Climate change is not a political issue. It is neither left nor right, liberal nor conservative,  corporate nor anti-corporate. It is a serious, practical problem affecting everyone that needs to be solved.

That we must eventually break the habit is clear because fossil fuels are a finite resource.  They will run out. That we must break the habit quickly[i] is well established by the scientific community.

Can we break the habit quickly? That is what I hope to help establish in this book.

I am not alone in this way of thinking. “We have ways forward which … will work without  … terribly time-consuming or expensive further technological developments. It’s simply a matter of giving up our current teddy bears, which we love to clutch, which is the conventional hydrocarbons, fossil carbon fuels, and [going] off into what we need to do to save ourselves.”[ii], says Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA Langley Research.

When humankind really wants to do something, our ingenuity, resources and determination are breathtaking. We put a man on the moon! We unlocked the power of the atom! We routinely build devices for our entertainment that are mind-bogglingly complex, and our industrial civilization and economic infrastructure is a system of interlocking components that rivals the brain as the most complex structure in the known universe.

We stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us. This challenge represents our generations’ turn to carry the baton forward.  It will not be easy, but it is possible.

How do we do it?

The sun landing on just 1% of the area of the Sahara desert contains enough energy to power the entire world. That same desert, irrigated with salt-water,  could provide enough bio-fuel to replace all of the worlds energy needs. The wind and sun in the American deserts and plains could power the entire nation. So too could the jet-streams way up above, as well as the heat in the ground beneath our feet. An intelligent Energy Internet that manages and stores energy, just like the World Wide Web does data, lies just around the corner.

There is no magic bullet. All renewables need to be developed on a massive scale. Enormous investments need to be made in transmission and storage, to deliver that energy where and when it is needed. Conservation is an equal partner. Every watt of energy you don’t use is a watt of energy you don’t need to produce.

Back when I was a software entrepreneur, my hard-nosed business partner would often exclaim in an exasperated voice “It’s all economics!” He would trot this expression out when ever I proposed something that relied on forces other than money – good-heartedness, idealism, moral goodness. He had a point.

Money makes the world go round, and it’s money that needs to be deployed. So how do we make the money flow away from fossil fuels? We cannot rely on goodwill or idealism.

One solution is to price carbon emissions. Emitting carbon can no longer be free, it cannot remain, in the words of an economist,  an ‘externality’. Then, and only then, will capital will begin to flow to renewables.  But this solution is long and slow. No-one is willing to shock the economy with steep, sharp increases in the price of carbon.

A second solution is to accelerate that capital flow, ensuring that lots and lots of cheap capital is made available for renewable energy production. Most renewable energy is pretty much free once you’ve built the plant – nobody pays to make the sun shine or the wind blow. What’s it cost to build the plant? Depends on how cheaply you can borrow money. A government-backed, citizens’ Green Bond[iii] – like the Victory Bonds of World War II – is one way to engage all citizens in this project, not just venture capitalists like me and the bankers on Wall Street.

When the world’s banking system failed in 2008, governments around the world mobilized something near ten trillion dollars almost overnight. The same scale of investment is required just to begin to kick the fossil fuel habit. To ignite our imaginations I ask in each chapter the trillion dollar question: what would you get if you invested a trillion dollars? How many barrels of oil could you replace? What sort of scale of infrastructure could be built?

This level of investment is not fantasy. The International Energy Agency predicts that the world needs to invest more than $45 trillion in energy systems over the next 30 years.[iv] That’s just to meet expected demand growth. The question is how do we want to invest it? Do we continue to invest in melting tar for our energy, or do we harness the sun? Do we continue to rely on a 17th century technology – coal – or do we greet the 21st century with a brand new start?

The third solution is to simply walk away from the existing energy base. We need to abandon our coal plants. Totally irrational from a free market perspective, but necessary if we are to make this transition in the time-frame required.

When the micro-chip was invented, it changed the world.  We are on the cusp of a similar economic and energy revolution. That revolution, though, will not come by itself. We need to stand up and make it happen. It will not come if we do not want it badly enough, if we do not work hard enough, if we do not commit ourselves to it.

To paraphrase the world’s most famous hockey hero, the Great (Wayne) Gretzky; “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where the puck is.” By mid-century our civilization must have broken the fossil fuel habit.  Ten Technologies to Save the World is a celebration of where we are going, and a clarion call to start heading in that direction now.

“We [have been] burning coal and oil and gas heedlessly for almost two centuries, not suspecting that, in the long run, dependence on fossil fuels is a kind of suicide pact. And here is the little miracle that shows we still have more than our share of luck: at exactly the same time when it became clear that we have to stop burning fossil fuels, a wide variety of other technologies for generating energy became available.”[v]


[i] How fast do we need to do it? By 2030, we need to bring our carbon emissions down to near zero if we are to avoid setting off some pretty scary natural processes, like the melting of the permafrost and the releasing of the massive amounts of greenhouse gases it contains. See How Bad Can it Get?

[ii] as quoted in Dyer, G., pg. 157

[iii] See Green Bonds: Citizen’s Capital at Work! for just one idea as to how to accelerate the movement of cheap capital.

[iv]Source:http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jul/22/solarpower.windpower?gusrc=rss&feed=environment

[v] Dyer, G., Climate Wars, pg. 244

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One Response to Kicking the Fossil Fuel Habit

  1. ilan says:

    >tom, really enjoying the blog, especially the references to primary literature and actual *data*, something omitted or probably not even researched by so many “experts” who write in the field. one thing you failed to give evidence for (nor have i found elsewhere yet) is the proof on WIND. ive found a number of sources highly critical of wind for being non-productive energy-wise, economically, environmentally, and just a politics-promoted scam. thoughts?

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