This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Friday, April 17, 2015

A Path to a Sustainable Future? Part 2-Energy

Yesterday I discussed the importance of being increasingly intensive with agriculture if we are going to save the environment and feed people both at the same time. This also means a continuation of the trend toward a greater fraction of people living in urban places. If we do things right, these activities can also be associated with major sustainable changes in the way we power our lives. While I was traveling earlier this week I had a chance to read Lester Brown and associates' new book "The Great Transition." Lester Brown has been a long-time leader in the environmental movement and I am very impressed by the positive tone that he's putting forth. To be sure, I have often had students over the years say to me--what can we do! And this book gives us some answers. In particular, the message is that we are moving more quickly to reliance on solar and wind energy than most of us are aware, and we have to do all we can to accelerate that process. Here are some highlights, all of which (and more) are discussed in detail (with extensive citations) in the book:
The price of solar photovoltaic panels has declined 99 percent over the last four decades, from $74 a watt in 1972 to less than 70 cents a watt in 2014. Between 2009 and 2014, solar panel prices dropped by three fourths, helping global PV installations grow 50 percent per year.
Over the past decade, world wind power capacity grew more than 20 percent a year, its increase driven by its many attractive features, by public policies supporting its expansion, and by falling costs. By the end of 2014, global wind generating capacity totaled 369,000 megawatts, enough to power more than 90 million U.S. homes. 
 U.S. coal use is dropping – it fell 21 percent between 2007 and 2014 – and more than one-third of the nation’s coal plants have already closed or announced plans for future closure. Meanwhile the Stowe Global Coal Index – a composite index of companies from around the world whose principal business involves coal – dropped 70 percent between April 2011 and September 2014.

In China, electricity generation from wind farms now exceeds that from nuclear plants, while coal use appears to be peaking.
The transition away from fossil fuels, in particular, is not going to be painless. As Dr. Pollock noted in a comment on yesterday's post, most fossil fuel based energy firms are worried about the short-term impact on themselves and shareholders, not the long-term impact on the sustainability of life on the planet. But Lester Brown's book provides strong evidence that the momentum is shifting toward a reliance on sustainable energy sources, and that the transition can be accomplished fairly quickly, even if not painlessly. One way to promote this, as the book points out, is for all of us to endorse the divestment movement, in which organizations are asked to drop their investments in fossil fuel based companies.

1 comment:

  1. Prof Weeks

    Interesting comments. Let me give you some thoughts ... positive and negative.

    On the POSITIVE side .. perhaps the finest example is the country of Germany. That country has a very strong political movement from the Greens - environmentalists. Germany is moving away from fossil fuels and nuclear power ... towards sustainable energy. They are probably one of the world's leaders in this trend at the current time. I cannot tell you what percentage of their energy demands are being met by sustainable production - it would be very interesting to see the chart.

    I have seen charts from the "investment guru's" who look at the tradeoffs between different energy sources. all those charts show that fossil fuels, for energy and for cars, are likely to be a major fuel source for America for a long time. Fossil fuels make up a very large percentage of our energy production. Getting America "off the addiction" is no small task. Are there possibilities? By far the best solution is to switch to a "hydrogen economy". We simply burn hydrogen as a fuel - it combines with oxygen in the atmosphere and produces water. It is entirely non-polluting and very practical. Engineers have ALREADY demonstrated the feasibility of hydrogen-burning cars and airplanes. IT CAN BE DONE!!! But the critical question is ... where do we get all of the hydrogen? The answer is ... electrolysis of seawater. But this REQUIRES a vast amount of energy to perform. In effect, the hydrogen merely exchanges one type of energy production for another. We still need a power source. The ONLY viable option for that amount of power - appears to be nuclear. This would be standard nuclear reactors, or possibly some new fusion reactor. Conceivably, if a breakthrough in fusion power happened, we could make this transition. But we are certainly running out of time. We have about 35 years. That is not much time to radically re-vamp the entire energy infrastructure.

    The perplexing problem ... HOW do we include the poor people of the world? Most of the 2 billion people who will enter the global population during 2015-2050 will be born in Asia and Africa. HOW do they get included in the "green revolution"? It seems much more likely that they don't ... in which case they are still stuck with fossil fuels, and nonrenewable fuels (oil, wood, charcoal).

    I really like the idea of divestment. I honestly do not know if most investors would go for it. Sadly, the investment behavior of many people seems to be "give me profits NOW!!". If that is the goal, then short-term fossil fuels remain attractive. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that a major crisis is coming for the 4 billion people on Planet Earth who are at the "bottom of the economic pyramid". The problem is time scales ... how long does it take to re-vamp life for 4 billion people? Probably a lot longer than 35 years. That's the issue.

    But I don't think we should give up. We need to keep "working the positives". Maybe there are some miracle breakthroughs that are still possible.

    Pete, Redondo Beach, California