Fossil fuels and reckless foolishness

Walt Patterson believes that real energy security will enhance climate security, and that intelligent, practical choices begin with getting the language right. The author of Keeping the Lights On answered 15 questions asked by chinadialogue’s Maryann Bird.

Maryann Bird: You believe we are "making a mess" of energy and endangering the planet in the process. What are humans doing wrong, and how are we most jeopardising the earth? 

Walt Patterson: We are using fossil fuels with reckless foolishness. The resulting build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is disturbing the climate, with consequences that may be catastrophic for life on earth, especially human life, possibly within the lifetimes of our grandchildren.

MB: Do we have to choose between energy use and the environment, between “energy security” and “climate security”? 

WP: No. Real “energy security” — improving the way we use energy to reduce our vulnerable dependence on fossil fuels — will also enhance climate security, by reducing the damaging emission of carbon dioxide.

MB: What’s the biggest problem with most current energy infrastructure? 

WP: In rich countries, for the past century, we have created our buildings, settlement patterns and social organisation under the influence of cheap petroleum and the internal combustion engine. Unfortunately, the rest of the world is now following our bad example. We have assumed that inadequate buildings can be made habitable by extravagant use of fuels and electricity, and that moving people and goods vast distances is “more economic” than producing what we need close to where we need it. Buildings are our most important energy technology — the technology that keeps us comfortable and enables humans to live essentially anywhere on earth. The energy service infrastructure — the physical assets that give us the comfort, illumination, motive power, refrigeration, information and entertainment we actually want — is much more important than the fuel and electricity delivery infrastructure. The better we make the buildings, the lamps, the motors, the chillers, the electronics, the less fuel and electricity we need. The tradeoff is obvious.

The biggest problem, however, is that politicians and policymakers still do not understand this. We have known for decades – indeed, centuries in some cases — how to make the energy service infrastructure better. But we have not bothered. Neither have governments. Now we had better start, and hope we still have enough time to get the job done properly, worldwide. 

MB: You write that the prices of fuels and electricity by unit are essentially artificial. What, then, should the cost criterion be, and how can it be achieved? 

WP: What matters is not the cost of the fuel or electricity alone, but the total cost of the service — the comfort, illumination and so on. The most important part of this total cost is the investment in the technology that delivers the service, not the cost per unit of fuel or electricity to run the technology. Preoccupation with the unit cost of fuel or electricity misses the point completely, especially because, as noted, this unit cost is artificial. It is determined, among other factors, by taxes, subsidies and other financial measures; discount rates and other accounting procedures; regulatory decisions; system and network interactions; and environmental considerations, or the lack of them.

MB: How can the aspirations of two billion more people around the world – who can justly claim entitlement to the energy benefits enjoyed in industrialised countries — be accommodated, short of environmental catastrophe? 

WP: “Accommodated” is the wrong word. The gaping disparities that now divide rich and poor are not a recipe for a stable planet. We need to learn from the extravagant mistakes of those now rich. We need to put in place all over the world, and especially for the two billion still waiting, energy service systems that are more reliable and more resilient, with higher performance and fewer side-effects. We already know how to do this technically. But we need innovative policy incentives and finances, so that those who know how to do it want to do it.

MB: Given that the vast disparity between the richest and poorest people is not a recipe for stability, how can energy be made sustainable for all? 

WP: This is a vast question, requiring detailed and specific answers for different energy services in different places. But that is itself a key aspect of the answer. We must get away from the “one size fits all” approach, especially when the “one size” mentions only fuel or electricity. We have not one single energy problem but many different problems, offering different options on different timescales. Neither the problems nor the solutions are readily interchangeable. Transport, for instance, is a serious and challenging long-term problem, because of the way we have laid out our society and economy. Buildings, by contrast, are comparatively easy. Electricity is easiest of all. Let us, therefore, tackle the easy problems immediately, to win time to resolve the more difficult.

MB: Will countries like China, India and much of Africa be able to “leapfrog” directly to new ways of providing electricity? 

WP: In principle, yes, indeed — provided their leaders stop trying to emulate the wasteful and reckless policies hitherto pursued by the old industrial countries. Innovative decentralised local electricity systems will be much the swiftest and most effective way to bring the benefits of electric light and other electricity services to rural China, India, Africa and elsewhere. Indeed, this will set a valuable example for the changes we in industrial areas will have to make.

MB:  Of all the renewable technologies, which have the most potential for the most people? 

WP: Renewable technologies — that is, technologies to supply renewable fuels and electricity — are not the first priority. First we have to get the end-use service technologies right — buildings, lamps, motors, chillers, electronics and so on. Only then can we select the most suitable renewable technologies to complete the system. Suitability of the supply technologies, in turn, depends on the locality and the renewable resources available, including sunlight, wind, water flows and currents, and sustainable biomass. The probability is that the most suitable arrangement will be not a single technology but a combination of two or more, each providing an essential contribution to the overall system — for instance wind plus photovoltaics plus batteries. When the sun is not shining, the wind may be blowing, and so on. 

MB: Among renewable power sources, is there a role today for nuclear facilities? 

WP: Nuclear facilities do not qualify as “renewable”. Uranium resources of adequate concentration are limited; uranium mining and processing uses more fossil fuel the poorer the ore; and every attempt thus far to move to plutonium fuels has been a technical and economic failure. The overriding problem with nuclear power is its opportunity cost. If we are genuinely concerned about sustainable development, “energy security” and climate, why choose the slowest, most expensive, most limited, most inflexible and riskiest option? Almost any other way of using our time, money and skills will have a surer payoff.

MB: Is small-scale, local power generation and supply the way of the future, rather than large networks, large corporate suppliers, monopolies, and such? 

WP: Yes, for the reasons I discuss in detail in Keeping the Lights On — technical, financial and institutional. The traditional model of electricity is more than a century old, obsolete and dangerous. We can now do much better.

MB: What might ideal electricity generation look like in the future? 

WP: Eventually, most electricity will be generated from ambient natural energy flows, close to where we want to use it, especially in buildings. If the lights stay on and the computers work, we won’t even measure the flow of electricity through them, much less pay for it by the unit. Most electricity will be provided by physical assets and ambient energy, not fuel. This “infrastructure electricity” will keep the lights on.

MB: Should we buy “green electricity”? Does it really matter? 

WP: That depends a great deal on the supplier and the nature of the “green electricity” being offered. At the moment, not enough truly “green” — that is, pure renewable — electricity is available for sale. If you know that the proceeds are being reinvested to install more renewable generation, “green electricity” is worth supporting. But reducing your electricity use, by upgrading your home, lighting and appliances, is much more important.

MB: Regarding electricity-generation costs — including the bills that consumers receive — how much is political and how much is economic? 

Economics depend on politics, here as elsewhere. Politicians appear to argue that costs determine policies — for instance, that coal-fired electricity is cheaper than photovoltaics, and is chosen for that reason. Actually, however, the exact opposite is true: policies determine costs — policies on taxation, subsidies, regulation, monopoly networks, environmental protection and so on. Devising policies that make the cost signals correct, unambiguous and consistent with other political objectives — such as climate and energy security — should be the aim of energy policy overall, especially as it affects the energy service infrastructure.

MB: Who will make the choices on energy that will determine what kind of world we leave to future generations? And what should those choices be based on? 

WP: Choices on energy are like all the other choices we make, individually and as a society. Some choices we make personally. Others we delegate, to elected representatives, to government, companies and other organisations. If we dislike the result we can try to change the choice. My essay “Running the Planet” [Annex 1 to Keeping the Lights On] explores this and other fundamental issues we humans now face. As to energy specifically, the most important choices are those that define the options — the choices of language and concepts according to which governments, policymakers, organisations and individuals reach decisions. At the moment, our poor choice of language limits and distorts our understanding of energy. If we start by getting the language right, intelligent practical choices become available to us, as individuals, as society and indeed as a species sharing this finite planet.

MB: In what areas must the first steps toward change, toward sustainable electricity, be made? 

WP: In our minds. Changing energy infrastructure takes time. But minds can change rapidly. Let us hope they can change fast enough.

Walt Patterson is an associate fellow of the energy, environment and development programme at Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) in London. His personal website, Walt Patterson on Energy, can be viewed here.

Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue

Homepage photo by Idiolector via Flickr