Living in the now

“Neither a borrower or a lender be.” This very impractical phrase expresses what I am attempting to say about sustainability, about living in the now.

Right now we are borrowing or leasing the environment from future generations.

We as a species need a functioning environment to live and grow. Lord Stern reckons that 1% of GDP should be spent here and now to rectify the damage done by burning too many fossil fuels. He further goes on to point out that it will be more expensive to rectify the damage in the future. By not spending that money today we are placing a massive burden on future generations. To reason that it can be rectified in future makes a number of assumptions. They are

  • That we are confident that we know all the linkages, pathways, and chemical relationships that lead to climate forcing by greenhouse gases.
  • That the damage will be capable of being rectified in future when accumulations are much higher
  • That there are no non linearities in the further build up of greenhouse gases. Rises in temperature may not follow a path which is proportional to rises in concentration of greenhouse gases. There could be a sudden acceleration in temperature rise.

It would be much safer to overspend now, and so to minimise the risks we ask future generations to take on our behalf.

Overspending now does not mean less industrial development and employment. In fact it means the opposite. New wind energy and solar plant is replacing old fossil fired plant. There are fortunes to be made and millions of new jobs to be created in the deployment of wind and solar plant. There is a Supergrid to be built in Europe. It will allow us to capture huge quantities of offshore wind as well as solar from the Sahara.

The cost of building one and a half million megawatts of wind plant ( the amount required to power 50% of Europe’s electricity demand in 2050) will be in the order of €4 trillion. The cost of the Supergrid will be somewhere in the order of one €1 trillion. The cost of installing two million megawatts of solar PV (the plant required to deliver 30% of Europe’s electricity demand by 2050) will be at least €4 trillion. The spend on the other renewables and whatever nuclear plant is required will amount to probably €2 trillion. If there are 2 to 3 jobs for every megawatt installed then we are looking at creating between 9,000,000 and 13,500,000 new jobs in Europe by 2050

When we arrive at the zero CO2 emission state we will be living in the now, in one of the most important life sustaining industrial sectors: energy and power. It will have been done at high cost. New industries, and new jobs with limitless export potential will have been created.

With the exception of what we pay for uranium, all of our primary energy will be free. It will all be coming from the sun. There will be no pollution. It will go being free forever. Just as living in the now is the healthiest psychological state; providing our energy in the now, is healthiest for humankind, for the wounded environment, and for the future prospects for our children.

5 Responses to Living in the now

  1. Roger Faulkner January 22, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    I too believe in the supergrid being the most important thing to enable a renewable energy future. It cannot be built with current terrestrial transmission technology, for which at present the maximum proven transfer capacity on land is 7.2 GW via an overhead 800kV DC line, as in two recent projects in China. The maximum capacity of terrestrial cables is at most 20% of this. Sea cables can go a bit higher (because they are wrapped on a bigger reel), but not above 3 GW. It is even worse than that, because the type of HVDC system envisioned in the “Friends of the Supergrid” or in the Atlantic Wind Connection on the US side are based on VSCs which at present can only go to 325kV, which implies less than half of the transmission capacity of 800kV LCC-based HVDC. And, it is not feasible to crisscross Europe with overhead 800kV DC lines even if the wind can be brought ashore. Clearly, a much higher capacity underground HVDC line is needed that can operate at 500-800kV DC, and the operational voltage of VSC needs to be boosted to this range.

  2. Mahon Slattery January 31, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    While we all seek the same outcome, we at terraintegra are focused on an immediate and planet challenging crisis. Today, there are 1.6 billion people with no access to electricity. Centralised grid systems have failed them. They live in a medieval time warp and directly combust biomass to give them heat for cooking and warmth. This dark population is not static but is growing at an exponential rate (particularly in Africa). It adds urgency to our socio-environmental challenges. The planet is moving out of equilibrium. Yes we can and should move our energy consumption in Europe and the US to tap renewable sources. But 80% of the world’s population lives in developing and under developed areas. It is they that must change to alternative energy resources. We must help them do that. The argument that the “West” achieved industrialisation by rabid colonisation, consumption and pollution and so can we, until we reach societal parity, is meritless if the planet cannot absorb the increased strain.

    We seek the same end. Our paths may separate and meander, but, we all have to achieve journey’s end.


  3. David Connolly February 2, 2011 at 10:02 am #

    I like the idea of a Supergrid, but I’m still not convinced. Would a Supergrid not simply delay the inevitable problem which we already face i.e. how does an energy system become 100% renewable? I imagine a Supergrid would just increase the scale of this issue from a country-specific concern to a pan European concern? I presume the fluctuations from renewables will still be a problem on a Supergrid, although it could be argued that they will be less severe.

    Also, I think there are numerous alternatives which we could focus on before a Supergrid. In a renewable energy world, efficiency will be key especially in relation to biomass. Therefore, wouldn’t it make more sense to maximise the use of our energy before we try and figure out how to get more of it? For example, going to the Sahara to get electricity sounds very elaborate when you consider that we have very little district heating (in Ireland anyway) and hence allow our power plants to waste half of their energy.

  4. Roger Faulkner February 18, 2011 at 2:24 am #

    You make a good point about cogeneration, and the lack thereof being a huge problem. Cogeneration and district heating were far more common in 1920 than today. The main reason is the larger size of power plants, which has forced them too far away from urban centers for district heating to work. Hot water & steam can’t be economically transmitted very fay (a few km). Natural gas combined cycle plants are typically smaller, and could fit into cogeneration schemes much better. But no amount of efficiency per se breaks the carbon cycle. To quit using up our fossil fuels and forcing greenhouse gas warming, we have to start using carbon-free energy sources, which are today nuclear and renewable energy.

  5. David Connolly February 21, 2011 at 10:31 pm #

    I’ve heard contrasting opinions in relation to district heating. I know the city of Aarhus in Denmark receives the majority of its heating from an 800-900 MW coal power plant which is about 10 km from the city, as far as I recall. Considering Whitegate and Aghada were just built in the last few years on the edge of Cork City, it sounds like a huge opportunity missed.

    In relation to the carbon-free point… if we are aiming towards a 100% CO2 nuetral world, then I think Ireland should look towards a biomass and intermittent renewable world, without nuclear. If we do establish a biomass base instead of fossil fuels, then we need to ensure that we are using our fuel as efficiently as possible to minimise the implications on food production. That is achieved by building power plants with an 85% efficiency instead of 40% i.e. CHP.

    In my opinion, the fives steps to a sustainable Ireland are efficiency, intermittent renewables, heat pumps, and electric vehicles, along with a continous evolution of new biomass technologies.

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