In the almost ten years I have been doing this blog I have never ever come across an adult discussion about energy decline. Well, here it is.
'Sustainability is wishful thinking': get ready for the energy downshift
14 November, 2020
The problem with “sustainability” is its implication that economic growth can still continue on blithely in a world of zero carbon and a green energy transition. But expect a rude shock. JOHN McCRONE reports.
When I arrive for the interview, Professor Susan Krumdieck is busy clearing out her office.
A mechanical engineer at the University of Canterbury for some 20 years, Krumdieck is upping sticks and heading off to run an energy transition project in Scotland’s Orkney Islands.
Covid permitting, of course. “They’re all still in lockdown over there,” she says.
My question seemed simple enough. Is New Zealand finally getting serious about sustainability?
There seem positive signs, I suggest.
After years of mucking about with emissions trading schemes and other half-hearted curbs on climate change, the Government now appears to be building a national energy transition strategy.
The vow to be carbon-neutral by 2050 has been cemented into legislation. Change is going to be enforced through new institutional mechanisms like the Climate Change Commission.
There are agreed sub-goals, such as the commitment to be 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2035.
It all sounds like a plan – a roadmap to a better future.
Krumdieck answers by hauling out a wad of old yellowing magazines from a packing box. Decades of saved articles warning humanity of impending environmental disaster and resource woes.
Already she intends to set me straight.
“Well I’m cleaning out and I’ve been finding roadmaps. Like piles of them,” she chuckles wryly.
She spins around a 1981 edition of National Geographic to read the headline. “Special report: Facing up to the problems, getting down to the solutions.” Then chuckles again.
Her point is that we have known how an exponential rise in the consumption of fossil fuels was going to end ever since she began her career as a young researcher at the University of Colorado.
And now we have way overshot the mark. Any action is going to have to be drastic. Talk of “sustainability” no longer cuts it.
That has become a feelgood weasel word, says Krumdieck. What does it say to the public except economic growth can be continued under a new carbon-friendly regime?
We will simply switch out the fossil fuels – the coal, oil and gas – and replace them with clean and green renewables.
More hydro. More wind, solar, geothermal and biodiesel. Then the completely new technologies exciting folk, like hydrogen fuel cells.
In July, New Zealand jumped aboard the “green hydrogen” bandwagon with the opening of Ara Ake, a $27 million energy initiative in Taranaki. Krumdieck rolls her eyes at the mention of that.
Anyway, from an engineering perspective, the sustainability strategy looks to amount to a straight swap of what sits under the hood of the economy. Green power to replace fossil fuel power.
Do that pit stop, throw in some energy efficiency measures, and get motoring again.
Krumdieck shakes her head. Sadly, this is her area, and she has crunched the numbers. It’s not going to work, she says.
Renewables can’t deliver in this way so energy abundance is about to become energy poverty. And we need to get ready.
“People just have to start thinking, OK, we need to use 80 per cent less fossil fuel by 2050. That’s the job here. And then begin finding the projects which achieve it.”
Krumdieck says any national roadmap has to plan for a general energy downshift. A winding back of energy use to somewhere around a 1950s level of personal consumption.
But hey, she adds brightly, this is a liveable outcome.
“So I just told you a really dangerous idea – work on downshifting fossil fuel use by 80 per cent. However, the other really dangerous idea here? That would be enough.”
After all, people still had a life, the world still had an economy, in the 1950s, she says. However, Krumdieck gives another chuckle because she realises it is not the version of a sustainable future that most might have in mind.
Energy returned on energy invested
Krumdieck has published her arguments in a book, Transition Engineering – a manual on how to rethink the economics of energy use.
November is also going to see a transition engineering conference – the New Zealand National Convergence for Carbon Transition – through a livestream being held in seven locations around the country.
At the heart of the issue is what engineers call Energy Returned on Investment (EROI), she says.
This is the usable energy left after the effort of creating it, and delivering it, is factored into the equation. And every energy source has a number.
Coal and oil were the original bonanza. As dense sources of carbon, their burning releases a lot of heat.
Once all the prospecting, drilling, refining, distribution and other aspects of the production chain are accounted for as energy inputs, the return in terms of available energy is 30 to 50 times greater.
So fossil fuels clearly pay their way. That is what enabled the coal-fired Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, and then the oil-driven consumer boom that really took off in the 1950s.
An economy is based on the ability to convert resources into goods using energy. And for the past 200 years, humans have freely mined and drilled all the fuel they needed.
But Krumdieck says those times are past for two obvious reasons. First, burning carbon is bringing about catastrophic climate damage. There’s that.
But also, when it comes to oil, the easy to extract stuff has already peaked.
Conventional oil production started to decline after 2006 – about the time the world economy fell off a cliff with the Global Financial Crisis. No coincidence, some say.
The petroleum companies have been having to move into unconventional extraction methods like deep sea drilling, tar sand mining, and the fracking of shale deposits.
Krumdieck says oil is still being delivered. But its EROI has plunged to 4 or 5 because of the extra expense of production. And that of course screws the economics.
Once it is costing a barrel of oil to get just five out of the ground, the return starts becoming hard to justify.
Green tech’s questionable economics
So the oil story is coming to its own end. And coal and natural gas are headed the same way too, Krumdieck says. Not exhausted. Just yielding an ever diminishing EROI return.
However the problem for green tech – the climate-friendly replacements – is that most of their EROIs already start towards the bottom of the production curve.
Hydroelectric power is an exception, Krumdieck says. It can match conventional oil’s 30 to 50 EROI range.
And New Zealand is of course blessed with water for dams. Hydro delivers 60 per cent of the electricity we use.
Geothermal is then another reasonably efficient way of producing electricity. Its EROI comes in at an acceptable 10 to 20.
New Zealand has thus been sensibly adding geothermal plants over the past decade. They produce 17 per cent of our electricity now.
But beyond that, the economics of renewables becomes questionable, says Krumdieck.
Wind power has an EROI of 10 to 30 in ideal conditions. And New Zealand certainly has wind. Yet our hills add turbulence. As a skinny island, it also keeps switching directions.
“It’s tricky here because we’re not flat like Denmark. And in Denmark, the wind blows from the same direction all the time.”
Krumdieck says it all adds to wind’s inherent unreliability. So while wind power is now 5 per cent of the national electricity mix, it isn’t the next power revolution waiting to happen.
Solar generation is then where the hype really overtakes the real world economics, she says.
Once you factor in the manufacturing inputs, and the expense of battery banks to make any home system work, the EROI ranges from 10 down to zero.
“To be honest, solar panels on roofs in New Zealand doesn’t make any sense. You’ve used coal from China to build the thing. There’s unspeakable harm in the mining and refining for the materials that went into it.”
Krumdieck says solar might be an option in Australia, Spain or California, where the sun is bright and better choices, such as hydro, are absent.
“But solar instead of hydro and geothermal production in New Zealand? Like, what are you doing?” she exclaims.
Looking further afield, biofuels – ethanol distilled from corn or other crops – have an EROI which drops right off the chart.
Likewise, hydrogen fuel cells. Krumdieck says she couldn’t believe it when last year the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) threw its weight behind a national Green Hydrogen campaign.
MBIE’s rationale was that hydrogen would be a good solution to power trucks and farm equipment.
An MBIE study said all cars could just go electric using ordinary lithium battery packs within 30 years. But the problem with replacing the diesel motors of heavy vehicles is they would need unfeasibly large batteries.
The Detail podcast investigates the case for pumped hydro storage at Lake Onslow, and asks if a focus on renewable energy is the best way to deal with climate change in NZ.
Hydrogen fuel cells combine hydrogen stored in a tank with oxygen taken from the air to generate electricity in a chemical reaction. That can then power an electric motor without the added weight of a battery, and with only water vapour as the tailpipe emission.
However, Krumdieck says she worked with the US military on its fuel cell projects 20 years ago. It was proven the technology could never deliver a usable EROI because more energy went into producing the liquid hydrogen fuel than ever came out the other end as electric power.
Krumdieck says the reality is that green hydrogen is being touted by a worried oil industry as a way to still have a business that relies on a national network of pipelines and service stations – satisfy shareholders by promising now to own the future distribution of liquid hydrogen fuel.
Taranaki, with its Maui gas field, is New Zealand’s oil industry hub. So it is not surprising a new hydrogen-promoting research centre has surfaced there.
But this shows how easy it is to get diverted by wishful thinking, she says.
“We get fixated on these stories without looking at the technical rationality of them. It’s like we’re waiting around for the cool stuff to start happening.”
Flipping the model
There are green energy alternatives. However Krumdieck’s argument is New Zealand already uses the technologies with the best EROI returns for its national electricity generation. There aren’t better ones on the horizon.
And the problem is our Zero Carbon Act goals mean we are going to have to add all our transport and manufacturing systems to this grid over the next 30 years.
Anything still relying on fossil fuels – cars, trucks, hospital boilers, milk powder driers; any industrial use of coal, oil or gas – all these need to join the green electricity revolution too.
Krumdieck says start by thinking what that extra load is going to look like in terms of extra dams and geothermal plants having to be crammed into the New Zealand landscape.
Then don’t forget to include a further 2 to 3 per cent of annual energy supply growth to meet sustainability’s “business as usual” economic expectations.
Krumdieck says this is why it is time to flip the thinking. Face reality and accept a downshift philosophy.
New Zealand’s COP21 commitments – the 2015 Paris climate agreement we are meant to be implementing – require us to get down to 20 per cent of our current fossil fuel use by 2050.
So we should simply now apply that as the engineering constraint on all new public investment and learn what our world looks like after that, she says.
This is the methodology she has been working on for a decade, the subject of her book. And the outcomes are quite different.
To illustrate what she means, Krumdieck waves her hand towards the window of her office. Beyond we can see the familiar sprawl of Christchurch’s suburbs spreading into the distance.
There is an easy example right there, she says. Energy use is about our whole modern pattern of life. So go in and re-engineer that so it uses 80 per cent less fossil fuel.
Our current energy-guzzling world was built on the back of cheap and abundant fossil fuel resources. From the 1950s, we developed a new urban form based on roomy houses, large cars, highways, malls, long commutes and personal mobility.
But Krumdieck says imagine taking a Texan – “a big old guy, with a big old truck” – and sending him to live in Amsterdam for a few years to do his job.
Just because of a change in the system of living, his energy consumption is immediately going to be cut by about 75 per cent.
“He’s still making good money. But he has a small apartment. He walks, bikes, or takes a tram to a small office. He’s using like a fourth the resources he had in Texas. And he’s not going to actually die because of it.”
Krumdieck says we simply have to redesign our lives, so they function on far less energy. And the good thing is people already want such a change. Research of the most-used term in US real estate adverts at the moment demonstrates this.
“In the United States, ‘walkable’ is now the number one property seller. I mean, whuuut?” she drawls.
Appealing to the base
So if we are heading into an era of necessary energy poverty, the priority right now should be making changes to urban form and transport systems. That is the best way to be spending public money, says Krumdieck.
Focus on eliminating the need for energy rather than on worrying how to keep increasing its supply.
Yet all the talk about a sustainability roadmap approaches the problem the other way around.
Krumdieck says look at the Green Party. In its election promises, it was calling for a 50 per cent subsidy to help Kiwis install solar panels and battery systems in their own homes.
“The Green Party knows it doesn’t make sense. But they do it for the marketing. Appealing to its base.”
Likewise the talk about meeting climate change commitments by subsidising the cost of a switch to electric cars.
Krumdieck says it seems like a sound investment in a green transition. However, it is a business as usual approach that leaves us with a world relying on a poor EROI solution.
Every electric car represents the embedded energy cost of a vehicle built in an overseas factory. There is the battery cost, not to mention the cost of all the road and parking infrastructure that goes with car use.
Why not spend the same money reinventing everyday life so it runs just as well on walking, e-bikes, locally-built delivery “golf carts”, and public transport?
Krumdieck says parking space takes up a third of inner cities. All that land could be freed for compact apartment complexes instead.
When “80 per cent less fossil fuel” is made the primary engineering constraint, the right things to be doing become blindingly obvious, she says.
For the same reasons, New Zealand ought to be investing in a national electrified rail network. A return to trains and trams is going to yield the best bang per buck when it comes to the amount of affordable clean energy we will have available.
“Go forward 100 years and you’ll not be using oil. But you’ll be thinking, yeah, that national electric rail we built is looking pretty good now.”
Yet where is this kind of thinking in the current sustainability roadmap, Krumdieck asks? Where is the Government action on that?
Instead, the politicians seem so fearful of suggesting real change that you have MBIE promoting hydrogen fuel cells as the best way to deal with the freight haulage problem.
“That makes no sense. Because what makes sense for trucking things around is actually trains.”
Promoting transition thinking
And so Krumdieck is off to the Orkneys next.
What happened is Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University heard about her work as a result of transition engineering talks she gave in the UK.
The university offered a professorship – a five-year opportunity to base herself in a remote community and develop a real-life energy transition plan.
Ten years ago, no-one was ready to think about downshifting, Krumdieck says. Now the mood is turning.
She ran a course at France’s Grenoble Institute of Technology as well. The result is Grenoble is opening the world’s first transition school. “They’ve got something like €46m coming in from various companies.”
Meanwhile, she is continuing her teaching by taking it online and international. Krumdieck has set up a transition “collaboratory” that has over 100 students from all over the world enrolled, and which could be scaled up to teach thousands.
Another initiative is Transition-HQ, an incubator for nurturing local transition engineering projects, founded by Wellington consultant Grant Symons.
Symons says it is early days but the aim is to create a national “mosaic” of research efforts – applying transition thinking in every New Zealand town.
He says Krumdieck’s many graduate students will be involved. A community plan for an energy transition in Masterton could be one of the first case studies.
Symons says the mission is to get people thinking differently by demonstrating the principles outlined in Krumdieck’s book.
“If you know you’re in a downshifting world that needs to produce less carbon, then you know you shouldn’t be investing in things which are not aligned with that world.”
Like Krumdieck says, understand the economic logic of EROI numbers. Don’t fall for the hype surrounding green technology. Start accepting the coming energy constraints and building them into the national future.
And as a final act before she leaves, Krumdieck is helping organise the national Convergence conference on November 26.
Speakers promised include former Prime Minister Helen Clark. The talks will be broadcast by a live link between seven venues from Auckland to Invercargill – a way to maximise participation and minimise travel carbon.
Krumdieck realises her transition message is not going to be a popular one. But it is time to take the post-fossil fuel future seriously.
And learning how to make do with less – returning to a 1950s scale energy budget – is how any engineer ought to be thinking if actually asked to write the long-term sustainability roadmap for New Zealand, she says