Living and growing with energy: what are the alternatives?

If there is a consensus on this earth, it is that life is worth living. Far from being perfect, which would be very boring, the conditions of this life must be constantly improved, this is called aspiring to progress. As we realise the limits to the burden that human activity can place on the environment, we need even more progress. But there is no consensus on the goals to be pursued or the means to be used. However, this is hic et nunc (here and now) that those means should be available to achieve the objectives we have set to ourselves.

Today, 83% of the world’s energy needs are supplied by fossil fuels. Their use is indispensable and will continue as long as the exploration of new deposits and their exploitation are more attractive than the alternatives, including positive and negative externalities.

Let’s imagine for a moment that “sustainable” equipment should only be designed, constructed and used with “sustainably sourced” resources and try to estimate how long it would take to make a full “transition”. With their lower ERoEI (energy return on energy input) and low availability, the achievement of this objective could wait till hell freezes over.

Furthermore, human needs do not only consist in energy intake and must be met during each of our short lives. The answer to this challenge does not lie in the mortifying ideology of sacrifice in the name of future generations and the criminality of not doing so.

A concept of sober and happy degrowth is nonetheless suggested. This may be a purpose for individuals or small circles of like-minded people. But this has no value in a society whose diversity and disparities are recognised and praised. Or else a totalitarian temptation is expressed, which is always unacceptable.

Discovering and exploiting resources of fossil and mineral origin must go on for two reasons: to fulfil our current life aspirations and to achieve a necessary progress. The demonisation which is currently taking place is in itself diabolical.

For their part, alternatives will not be made more attractive in a sustainable way by tax incentives and subsidy mechanisms that are imposed at the expense of the community (who already works in an unsustainable way for at least 83%). They must use resources efficiently, also taking into account their positive and negative externalities. Very demanding constraints apply to these technological developments; “other, different, alternative” is not good enough, it must be clearly superior.

One of the solutions is known and available: nuclear power in its best current form (Chinese EPR), or in a form that has been demonstrated on a large scale but abandoned for political reasons (Superphénix breeder reactor at Creys-Malville, France), or in possible modular forms that have yet to be developed and deployed.

There are also known solutions, such as hydropower, which is already well established and plays an essential role. But others are less available, such as solar energy, which does nothing at night and little under the clouds (between 75% and 90% of their installed capacity is not used), wind energy, which is not used at night or must be feathered in the event of a storm (useless at a 60-80% rate), biomass, which only grows once a season, or geothermal energy, which is a local occurrence.

The chronic and chaotic unavailability of the latter can be countered by electricity storage, the firing of gas-powered plants in the event of a blackout, synthetic fuels, improved consumption efficiency, and increased recycling. However, these solutions also have their limits, inefficiencies, and problematic externalities. They require an unwarranted amount of financing. No one is really committed to them because no valid economic model is presented that can convince investors. These are hopes that politicians are stubbornly clinging to for no reason, despite the realities. We are left with tax games that eat up taxpayers’ bread and create nothing.

Primary sources or secondary vectors of energy, everything must be considered in a whole whose mission is not ideological. It is about supplying society with energy in a safe and useful form, at any time and in all places. Confident in human inventiveness, we can be certain that, little by little, one by one, the best answers to the challenge we face will become reality, and even with other solutions that no one has yet imagined. It will then be possible to reduce the share of fossil fuels in our energy mix. This cannot be ordered or planned, it must be given the time it needs.


Tags: Alternative Fuels, Fossil Fuels, Hydropower
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