Energy

Planet of the humans: Is green energy enough to save the day?

The film is a depiction of what can go wrong if we do not address the energy question. What it does not address is the monstrous scale of energy use 

 
By Ajay Phatak
Last Updated: Tuesday 14 July 2020
Planet of the Humans is a depiction of what can go wrong if we do not address the energy question.

Planet of the Humans has received interesting feedback from all quarters. But it only seems opportune to provide a comprehensive response to the comments and also clarify a few important and missing elements of the film.

Renewable energy is a much-debated subject. When embedded in the classical growth paradigm in the capitalistic framework, it turns into yet another guzzler of fossil-based energy. 

The film is an interesting depiction of what can go wrong if we do not address the energy question holistically. One of the key issues that it does not take up is the monstrous scale of energy use and what it would translate to if we explore other options. 

The film focuses on spelling out the problem, but does not suggest a way forward. While this criticism could be valid, it is still important to start a discussion. The film has achieved that objective. 

Scale of energy use

While considering a transformation of the energy system, we must first address the scale of energy use. The technology, no matter how advanced, if embedded in the growth paradigm, will inevitably lead to an increase in energy use. 

The current energy mix comprises 82 per cent fossil fuels. Even energy mix in the year 2040 is estimated to be 74 per cent fossil fuels.

Any new production of solar panels or wind turbines in such a case would incur burning additional fossil fuels.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, according to the law of conservation of energy.  Every instance of energy use makes the output form of energy less capable of doing work.  This is increase in entropy and relates to the second law of thermodynamics. 

If we have to convert this depleted form of output energy into input energy, we need extra external low entropy energy source (currently of fossil origin) capable of reconversion.

Converting high-entropy radiant solar energy to low-entropy electricity requires external energy input from ‘low entropy’ energy source, in this case, fossil energy. Every time you use up low-entropy energy, you are increasing the entropy and reducing the capability of output energy to do useful work.

Every act of doing useful work reduces the aggregate availability of ‘free’ energy required to do such useful work in future.

Even if we decide to use solar or wind energy and accelerate production of the conversion infrastructure, we will have to use fossil energy input to build the infrastructure.  Keeping coal and oil buried instead of using it will move us in the opposite direction — we will only accelerate the use of fossil fuels. 

The electric vehicle debate

While electric vehicles can help in reducing local pollution levels, what will be the overall impact of such a move?  Where will the energy to make cars and batteries come from?

The issue of batteries — how these will be treated at the end of life and what will be additional energy required to do it — remain unanswered.  Toxicity at the time of disposal is also not a completely answered question yet. Aspect of charging infrastructure and how will that be constructed in absence of fossil energy is a question worth pondering upon. 

The film is focused predominantly on the United States situation. Most underdeveloped and developing countries have low automobile density, and the average distance driven is miniscule, compared to EV.

Does it mean that internal combustion enegines (ICE) vehicles are better or we must continue to use fossil fuels at the current level of consumption? The answer is no. 

If we decide to use fossil fuels, we must use them at orders of magnitude below the current level and that would be a reasonable trade-off.

Bioenergy

Bioenergy in multiple forms and shapes, from burning wood to making alcohol from sugarcane to run cars, are much touted options.  The challenge with using bioenergy is scale of use. For example, if we intend to convert all vehicles in Brazil to run on ethanol, we are in for a serious trouble.  Such an attempt would ask for more and more land to grow more and more sugarcane, which can only be obtained at the expense of clearing more forests.  

By increasing land use for humans, we are killing the very basis that provides for them.  We lose more biodiversity as we use more land.  That is how we become a more vulnerable species in the trophic web. 

Bioenergy, if considered with due protocol of rational exploitation could be an interesting option for the energy system transformation.  Having said that, it is important that such rational exploitation will mean severe limitation on how much energy we can indeed use within these limits.   

We need to ensure that resources we consume are regenerated within a reasonable span of time for us and our future generations to use.

Understanding the trade-off

Every act of using non-renewable energy is a trade-off.  Only real renewable energy is sun’s energy radiant on earth in as-is form without any conversion.  If we are to live a civilised life, it will never be 100 per cent sustainable, considering we will continue to use some products and services that demand that coal or oil be used as energy input or material input.  

If we can make the best possible trade-off to limit the energy use to a much lower value than what is being used today, its pull on other natural resources and the overall ecological footprint will remain manageable.

Consumption-technology nexus

Talking about population, which is definitely a multiplier and must be seen in the context of the equation on generated impact stated by Paul Ehrlic:

I = PxAxT  (impact on environment = population x affluence x technology)

If we have to reduce this impact, we must reduce the value of all these three variables on the right side.  This means that affluence and technology play an important role as well. 

History of technology clearly suggests that any advancement in technology has always led to increase in energy use and typically, use of fossil fuels. Higher efficiency of individual electronic components (such as transistors as used in integrated circuits) has led to using far too many of these, leading to increase in aggregate energy use by orders of magnitude.

Can we indeed use technology to reduce aggregate use of energy? While we can be hopeful, history certainly does not seem to say so.

While we should certainly question the nexus between money and the environmental movement, there are plenty of individuals and organisations across the world doing yeomen work for protecting and restoring the environment. 

All organisations who believe that they can have the cake and eat it too are in trouble.  Trying to extract profit from natural resources becomes unviable very quickly from sustainability perspective due to externalisation of costs.

The film triggers a debate.  A more comprehensive treatment to the subject of energy is necessary.

Writer, Ajay Phatak is a trustee of The Ecological Society, Pune.  He has been studying ecology, energy, sustainability and development for over a decade 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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