Life after Fossil Fuels


There is a lot of talk about replacing fossil fuel use with other forms of renewable energy. The discussion, though worthy of discourse, has become somewhat simplistic in the process. Fossil fuels out today and wind power in tomorrow; fossil fuels out today and solar panels in tomorrow. Of course, if the answers were that simple, we wouldn’t need so much discussion, would we?

Unfortunately, these conversations become cloaked in politics and partisan points of view. There are few sources that just present the facts about our planet’s dicey environmental situation . Information presented as fact is often clouded by editorial layers much like the proverbial onion.

David McKay is a British physicist. He likes to say that he is “pro-arithmetic.” Reading his book or watching  his interviews suggest that his perspective is “by the numbers” and not much more. Numbers, however, can be quite sobering in and of themselves. Dr. McKay’s numbers point to very real physical limitations in terms of the production of power.

He uses his own country, Great Britain, as an example of a country in dire need of more land in order to fully power its needs. Currently, 90% of the UK’s energy supply is from fossil fuels. His arithmetic points to the need for 20 to 25 percent of Great Britain’s landscape to be devoted completely to growing corn for bio-fuel and land for the creation of wind farms and solar panels. It begs the question of where would all the people displaced in this process live?

Thinking of renewable energy as a replacement for fossil fuel use in the world in these stark terms should give us pause.  It is certainly a novel way to teach us about environmental science and usually the science of math is something the world can agree upon to a large extent.  Based on his own research, Dr. McKay strongly favors big actions that make a lot of difference.

He is not against us as individuals lowering our thermostat and switching off the lights when we aren’t in the room, but his focus is on the big picture of world energy consumption. Renewable energy includes wind, solar heating, solar photovoltaic’s, biomass, hydro, tide waves and geothermal energy.  Considering these sources, you then have to take into consideration their availability. In countries like England, solar energy is not terribly efficient due to weather patterns while the Sudan would be perfect to capture large amounts of uninterrupted solar energy nearly every day of the year.

This leads us to the question of future alliances and conflicts. Will countries be eyeing each other’s landscapes to lease large tracts of land for growing corn or soy beans?  Will the balances of national power someday be based on how much sunlight a country receives or prevailing wind patterns it experiences as opposed to pure military might? Or will Imperialism once again rear its’ ugly head for the purpose of securing the energy futures of a few nations.

There are very few countries in the world today that possess all of these forms of renewable energy. The world’s consumption of energy is moving toward the British model  where significant portions of each country would need to be devoted entirely to energy production of one kind or another, if fossil fuel use is abandoned.  Then the question of how to transport these renewable forms of energy comes into play; the process is not as simple as filling a tanker full of oil.

While many of us aspire to a life after fossil fuels, it is important to be a bit careful about what we are asking.  Simplifying the answers may be good for bumper stickers but they can trick a national psyche into an “if only” mentality; if only we didn’t rely so heavily on oil and gas, life would be grand.

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