Energy transitions start with optimizing what we have. Period.

When first moving to Calgary from a life of poverty on the farm, I used to be amazed at what people would throw out in the trash. Good looking microwaves. Old lawnmowers. Tables and furniture and stuff that someone paid good money for not long before. Home renovations almost made me weep; dumpsters full of maple hardwood scraps and two by fours and other stuff that a farmer could make a rocket out of. Today, in my back yard are slate tiles I salvaged from an office reno I was chagrined to witness some decades ago; perfectly good, expensive tiles were headed for the dumpster because someone new didn’t like the colour. I heard their little cries and adopted them (pic).

It must be the scavenger/material optimizer bred into the bone, but whatever the reason, it is difficult to watch the current frenzy to “decarbonize” our entire industrial complex, when the concept as proposed means trashing it. “Decarbonization” is not my word; National Geographic seems fond of it: “Climate experts say a full decarbonization of electricity generation systems will be necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions…” And to be more precise, what is difficult accepting is the pace that these experts demand it happen.

Does anyone know what that means, to decarbonize? I don’t think they do. I don’t think anyone does.  The task is too monumental, too intertwined with every aspect of our existence. Pick up any idealistic plan to “decarbonize the world’s electrical systems” and you’ll find brazen and bizarre claims like “all flights under 1,500 km will be by electric plane within two decades.” (I refuse to provide links; you can find such whimsical Green New Deal thinking easily if you choose.)

Part of growing up on the farm also meant monthly admiration of the latest Popular Science/Popular Mechanics magazines, which often included very useful tips and tools. They also unfortunately polluted their covers with similar wild-eyed forecasts about what new technology would do in twenty or thirty years. Flying cars will be here by 2000. Intergalactic travel. Cold fusion machines that will fit in a closet. Endless optimism designed to sell magazines. Dreamers loved this stuff, but after a few years it was obvious that most of these whiz-bang cover stories were science fiction dreaming (not all of course, but most).

Now, that same spirit of invincible wish-listing permeates the world “because we have to”. The thinking goes, if we don’t “decarbonize” we’re all doomed. And so many players in the ever-more-powerful central planning circles simply say that’s what’s going to happen.


But it won’t. The current system of fuel production and delivery is not just part of the central nervous system of the world’s life-giving infrastructure, it is the central nervous system. Today’s hydrocarbon system defines our way of life and is inseparable from it.

“The planet” doesn’t care how much we want something. We simply can’t redo a century’s worth of infrastructure in short order. We could if we had an alternative in the meantime, if it was like building a detour while a new bridge is built, no problem.  

We can’t throw it all in a dumpster and replace it with wind and solar and batteries. It’s like developing a single huge farm to feed a city of a million, then deciding to abandon the farm and source all the food from a local grocery store instead because the big farm was bad for the environment. The local grocer won’t be thrilled to get the business, he’ll tell you you’re nuts for thinking it will work.

“Decarbonization” will be a process, starting by optimizing what we currently can’t live without. We need to think about this like farmers would. Use what you have, make it better, make it last. Buying a new fuel-efficient car may not be optimal compared to extending the life of an old one, from a systems perspective, and that’s how we need to start thinking. Add renewables as systems are able to handle and integrate them, but don’t expect renewables to replace them. If someone says that’s not enough, that’s their problem, because it is all that will work.

Though we’d never know it from the news, such programs are underway and are working. The US has a brilliant initiative called the Clean Cities Coalition Network (put in place some twenty-five years ago, so no, not a Trump thing). Here’s their mandate: “Clean Cities coalitions foster the nation’s economic, environmental, and energy security by working locally to advance affordable, domestic transportation fuels, energy efficient mobility systems, and other fuel-saving technologies and practices.” Here’s their results: “Since beginning in 1993, Clean Cities coalitions have achieved a cumulative impact in energy use equal to nearly 8 billion gasoline gallon equivalents through the implementation of diverse transportation projects.” That’s how you do it. You fix up what you have, and make it work better, particularly when the whole beast has to keep running flat out to keep everyone alive regardless. Keep tinkering, keep improving, keep adding, keep fixing…but don’t throw it out and start again when that is impossible. And stop saying it can be done.

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15 Comments

  1. Robert Biggs says:

    It doesn’t make sense to you because you’re a rational person and honestly believe that it’s a debate between groups that want the best for society. It’s not. The people pushing the Green New Deal don’t want success, They don’t want a healthy productive society. They want to rule.And they are perfectly happy to do it over the dead bodies of millions, if need be. Your “local grocer” analogy is apt, because you’re right, everyone would starve. And that’s the goal. When they say “All flights over 1500 km will be electric.” they’re telling the truth, because under their rule, there won’t be any flights at all. Hungry people are easy to control, the negative consequences of decarbonising aren’t unintended. Policy can be reasonably debated among people arguing in good faith, ecototalitarians only care about power and control, the environment is a fig leaf. Logic and reason don’t work on psychopaths hellbent on totalitarian rule. Where do we go from here?

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    • Terry Etam says:

      I don’t think you’re wrong. The problem (for me anyway) is…how to reach the middle, the silent majority, who know little or nothing about energy, and are apt to be swayed by overly simplistic GND nonsense? I understand how the average citizen is swayed by such loony projections, because the media treats them as sensible. So I’m speaking to that middle ground, the maybe swing voters, or the ones that might have voted for Trudeau but might be open to reason. GND advocates are beyond reach, or reason, just as socialists are. I gave that up long ago, debating socialism with a socialist is like debating religion. Total waste of time. I don’t think any GND people would read what I have to say, and I don’t care, because I have no interest in engaging with anyone capable of such self-deception. THanks for the comment.

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      • Robert Biggs says:

        Yeah, you’re right, informing and swaying the middle.to a reasonable course of action is preferable. It seems to be a battle of competing ideologies: the original sin of an energy intensive civilization that’s poisoning the Earth and can only be redeemed by allowing Green zealots to rule over the smoking ashes of Western culture, or free markets and well-fed populations. We don’t have enough effective communicators, and the Greenists are all zealots that can’t shut up. Winning the debates and persuading the electorate would be nice, but the next most likely outcome I can think of is the 30 Years War…

        Liked by 1 person

      • John Chittick says:

        I agree that politics is the schoolyard battle ground for the hearts and minds of the “mushy middle” of the electorate. I have yet to see a way of reaching these masses with the information that might convince them that CAGW hysteria is unwarranted and our prosperity is dependent on reliable and affordable energy which means in real terms, fossil fuels will remain as a long term bridge to more Nuclear over and above Hydro or other reliable and economical source. The alternative is de-industrialization and poverty.
        Information such as: The Canadian electrical grid production is already 81% non-emitting thanks to 63% hydro, 17% nuclear, 1% unreliables, and the rest, Coal and Gas transitioning to all Gas. It’s in the heating and transportation sectors where “de-carbonizing” in Canada is a disaster in waiting. Globally, despite the expenditure of trillions in subsidies, propaganda, and rent seeking bounty, “total” energy consumption from wind and solar amounts to just over 1%. A 1000 lb electric car battery requires the mining, refining and processing of 250 tons of minerals currently from mostly fossil fuel energy. Eight percent of the Earth’s crust is comprised of carbonates formed by marine life converting dissolved CO2 from atmospheric concentrations orders of magnitude higher than today and under climate variability unrelated to concentrations. CO2 levels declined to levels (180ppm) just above the point of photosynthetic shutdown (150ppm) near the end of the last glaciation. How do people who act from emotion, blind faith, and appeal to authority digest anything that goes against the dominant narrative?
        Germany went to the precipice of GND and didn’t like the resultant energy poverty (and/or Russian dependency) and went back to Coal. Given that Canada is following the US (Fed) in steaming full ahead for a date with inflation that will make 1973 to 1982 look like a picnic in order to paper over bankruptcy form uncontrolled borrowing, hunger and deprivation might just refocus the priorities of the mushy middle regardless of where we are in Gerald Butt’s centrally planned dystopia.

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      • Terry Etam says:

        I almost think we have to go there John. No brush with disaster seems to faze the zealots and our governments; they just point the blame in the wrong place. Quebec almost runs out of propane in the dead of winter due to illegal rail blockades, and the place just shrugs. Rhode Island declares a state of emergency when it had insufficient natural gas supplies in the dead of winter, then within weeks of that being over is back on the full throttle renewables charge. California, same – activists blame a lack of batteries! With no concept of what a full battery replacement would look like, if it’s even possible (I don’t think it is). I feel quite sad to think what a lot of people will have to go through before this issue finally gets the respect it deserves.

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    • Marcel Riou says:

      Mmmm….I don’t buy power and control for its own sake – no actual evidence of that. I think, like most other people they want power to implement naively idealistic policies, which is just as bad anyway.

      We’re at a point, I think, where we really ought to all “think like farmers”, in other words, respect what we’ve got. Truly good post.

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      • Terry Etam says:

        Thanks for the kind words and support! True, motivations may not always be what we ascribe when “they” are so freaking annoying, because they’re annoying…

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  2. Marlene says:

    Love this article….except for your little addition of that dig about this not being started in Trump’s era! Are you so frightened by the thought that he might actually get credit for a good idea? Sheesh!!!

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    • Terry Etam says:

      Thanks! Actually wasn’t a dig at Trump though I see now how it could look that way.Just meant to point out that it was not in fact a new policy but an old one. I made the distinction because I actually see it as something Trump could have gotten behind (at least parts of it) as opposed to the lunacy of his opponents on the energy file.

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  3. dcardno says:

    Jesse Ausubel (Rockefeller University) has pointed out that we are naturally de-carbonizing, as we move from wood to coal to liquid petroleum products to natural gas and hydroelectricity the carbon intensity in our energy systems drops. For an interesting (albeit long) review of the history of electrification, primarily in the US context, you might have a look at this.

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    • Terry Etam says:

      Interesting read, thanks. These analyses are good roadmaps of where we’ve been but I have trouble seeing their value looking forward. OUr system is too big, too complex, and we can’t live without it for even a matter of hours. Think of converting from wood to coal 150 yrs ago. New stoves required? If people had stoves? So a straightforward conversion. Imagine converting a single city from natural gas heat to heat pumps or some impossible solar/wind combination. Imagine the problems logistically, never mind cost. Imagine doing that around the world.

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      • dcardno says:

        Hi Terry – no I wasn’t citing the piece for its predictive value; I think it was published in 1995 or so, so it is quite dated even if it was predictive. I just think Ausubel is an interesting writer, and that his observation about decarbonization over a century or so corresponds with your comment that a major shift in energy production is not going to happen overnight, or even in a couple of decades.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Marlene says:

        I feel better now. 😉( btw I have your book, great!)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Terry Etam says:

        Awesome!! Thanks for the support Marlene!

        Like

  1. […] “The planet” doesn’t care how much we want something. We simply can’t redo a century’s worth of infrastructure in short order. We need to stand up to those who say we can. Read on… […]

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