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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