Felix Writes: Our Energy-scarce Future

DigitalThoughts / Our Energy-scarce Future

2013-07-08

In a couple of cyberpunk short stories I wrote in 2012, I postulate a future in approximately 50 years when the world is facing the triple crisis of energy scarcity, food scarcity and large scale societal breakdown driven by overpopulation. And you know, readers told me my vision of the future is too pessimistic. But apart from the fact that I am, of course, unable to actually predict the future, I say my expectations are in fact plausible. Here's why.

I have no idea when oil will run out (read: become too expensive to exploit). It could happen in 25 years, like in my stories, or it could happen in 250. All I know is that it will run out. What will happen then?

"Nothing much," many will say, "we'll all be on solar and wind by then."

O RLY? Let's look at Germany and Denmark, two very rich countries with both the political will and economic power to run massive renewable energy programs. The result? In 2012, Germany covered 22% of its needs from renewables. Denmark, apparently, did a little better at 30%.

Sounds great, right? Not really. It means that 70-80% of their energy needs were from fossil fuels. And that's after decades of intensive -- and very expensive -- research in the field, and absolutely massive subsidies from the government, which most countries couldn't afford. Also, wind and solar are inefficient, which means energy farms have to cover a lot of ground, which we'll soon need for other things.

"But... but... wait, what about hydroelectric plants? Those have been used as a renewable power source for decades."

Why, sure. Iceland, I hear, covers a whopping 75% of their energy needs from hydro power. Guess climate change hasn't hit them hard yet. Here in Romania, rivers fluctuate so much with the seasons nowadays that hydro plants often can't be relied upon anymore. But at least we get our energy from a wide variety of sources. Imagine we didn't.

Moreover, building a large dam is also very expensive, not to mention how much it disrupts ecosystems and upturns human communities.

"Then we'll build more nuclear reactors. Those make plenty of energy. Cheaply, too. And there's no shortage of fuel."

Oh yeah? Let's look at France, which gets 70-80% of its electricity from nuclear sources. And now they have to start saving. Newsflash: nuclear power plants are white elephants. They have absurd construction costs, therefore they can't meet their promise of dirt cheap energy because they'd never recovered the investment. Not to mention that people hate them. Remember the backlash after Fukushima? Yeah. One more disaster like that and we may well see an actual worldwide ban on nuclear energy, suicidal as it would be.

"So I guess we have to replace petrol. I hear there's something called biofuels?"

Sure is. Last year, Lufthansa succesfully completed a trial that involved running their planes on biofuels. Trouble is, biofuels are basically alcohol made from grains... which have to be grown... instead of food. On a planet with a burgeoning population and dwindling fresh water reserves. AND rising sea levels which will cut down into the available land. Do the math.

Incidentally, the fresh water crisis is one thing I waved away in my stories, simply because I didn't trust myself to deal with the likely consequences. But that's all right, because those consequences will become apparent very soon indeed.

"Then I guess we're lucky oil isn't really running out all that soon."

Isn't it? By some estimates, peak oil has already been reached in 2005, which is why oil companies are now tripping over each other to exploit tar sands and shale gas. Which not only has terrible effects on the environment, but (in the latter case) also uses up even more of that precious fresh water. The punchline? It won't last, since they're exploiting those pockets so fast.

So what does this oil-less future look like?

Imagine all your country's industry winding down during your lifetime. Imagine untold millions being out of a job. How many people, exactly? Most widely accepted estimates peg the world's population at 9 billion in 2050, after which it should plateau and start decreasing again. (In my stories I went with the more pessimistic estimates, just for kicks.) But until then, all those billions will have to be fed. And remember, no oil means no fleets of ships and trucks bringing food from continents away. You'll have to make it locally, which on the one hand will mean more jobs in agriculture, but also more uncertainty as water AND land grow scarce due to climate change. Not to mention all those people will have to sleep somewhere...

But even if society will manage to absorb the shock -- and reactions to the financial crisis were not encouraging -- your life will be very different. No car for you; even if you'll still be able to afford one, which is unlikely without mass production making them cheap, power for electric cars also has to be produced somehow, you know. And at home you'll have at most a few hundred watts, enough to run a laptop, an electric kettle and a refrigerator. If you can afford a big mansion and plaster it with solar panels, you should even have enough for a washing machine or an electric stove. Not both at once, though. Air conditioning? Bwahaha. Keep in mind that "self-sufficient" homes nowadays are still connected to the grid, and only produce surplus power during brief hours of peak insolation.

Luckily, LEDs and cellphones use up negligible power...

Finally, the end of oil will have yet another consequence, which I don't know what to make of. How do you suppose modern civilization will cope with a lack of plastics and many chemicals?