The other day someone asked me where I got the ideas for my essays. Some come from an abiding interest in Australian society, politics and economics, public policy and good government. Others come from something I’ve read and pondered on for a while. A third set is what comes to pass in what we call ‘the news’. What actually happens, or happened today, is often important enough to prompt an essay even though I had intended to write on something else. The bushfires forecast for the ‘unprecedented and catastrophic’ Tuesday last week were an example. This essay comes from the second set. It is not new, but it is beautifully written, and the writer, Emeritus Professor Michael Kelly of Cambridge, is a real authority in the field about which he is writing. You can read the speech/essay here. It is thoroughly worth reading, clear and accessible to the average citizen.
The essay was delivered as a lecture hosted by the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London a week ago. Its title is ‘Energy Utopias and Engineering Reality’, and that gives you a good sense of his perspective. There is nothing new in it save the most recent data, but it is compact and forceful. What comes now is my summary.
He starts with a proposition that is amply supported by the hard data that he offers, and has been put forward not only by me in earlier essays but by several commenters on this site. What are in square brackets are my additions.
I want to begin by presenting four examples that show how clearly the world is better off today as opposed to thirty or one hundred years ago because of, among other things, a among other things, a sufficient supply of energy. The incidence of hunger, poverty, illiteracy and child mortality have all been reduced by more than a factor of two over the period 1990–2015 (Figure 1a).
Death rates associated with gas and nuclear energy production are less than a sixth those of oil and coal. Deaths from natural disasters have dropped by 90% over the 20th century,) [the tsunamis of the recent past have elevated the 21stcentury natural disaster deaths a little]. Warnings by radio and telephone are the main reason. More people live in safer and better conditions and are better fed than at any previous time in human history. [And there are many more of them, as well, though the birthrate is declining as more girls are educated.]
We in the West have an apparent choice, he says. We can turn off the use of coal in our country (though we won’t and can’t, as you will see) or you can help two billion people in West Asia and Africa move quickly to have ample and reliable energy, which will get them out of poverty and into all the good things that come from access to energy. If we don’t help, the Chinese will do it through their Belt and Road initiative. Do we want that outcome?
Professor Kelly is not especially interested in the science of climate change. The arguments in this lecture would still apply if the actual warming were twice as fast as model predictions. What are they? First the growth of population has been associated with a growth in the demand and supply of energy. Second, the energy sector has shrunk in terms of its contribution to the economy (energy has become much cheaper). Third, Energy is the essential driver of modern civilisation. World GDP this year is estimated at $88 trillion, growing to $108 trillion by 2023, with the energy sector then being of order $10 trillion. But renewables have played, and will continue to play, a peripheral role in this growth. Industrialisation was accompanied by a steady and almost complete reduction in the use of renewables. Here I presume Professor Kelly is referring to the past use of forest fuels and windmills, and perhaps the dams that powered the first factories in the 18thcentury.
The current global ambition (at least on the part of alarmists) is to keep emissions to within 1.5C of pre-industrial levels. [This might make some sense if we knew what those levels actually were, and why those levels are thought to be optimal, which on the face of things is hard to credit.] Professor Kelly says that achieve this goal would require replacing all the energy developments since about 1880 with zero-carbon alternatives. This is to be achieved by 2050… Even reaching the old target of an 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions would be miraculous; this is a level of emissions not seen since 1880. I assert that a herd of unicorns will be needed to deliver this target, let alone full decarbonisation. I also point out the utter nonsense of Extinction Rebellion’s demands to complete the task by 2025.
What drives the demand for global energy? Poverty is declining, the ‘middle class’ is expanding rapidly, people are wealthier and they want, and are able to get, more energy of all sorts. There has been a profound rise in the quality of life of the rapidly developing countries, but alternative energy sources are a tiny proportion of total supply, and most projections of future demand show only a slight increase in that proportion. And this improvement in human welfare will be driven almost entirely by fossil fuels. BP suggests that by 2035, renewables will still only be delivering about 10% of energy demand, less than one sixth of fossil fuel provision. And one sees a smooth evolution rather than any break points that would indicate major advances or abrupt changes in the energy sector.
Professor Kelly points out that there is a lot of confusion everywhere about ‘energy’ and ‘electricity’, because many people think they are the same. Not so. In the UK twice as much energy is used in transport as in electricity generation. There are no electric ships, let alone aircraft, and electric vehicles are a very small proportion of the whole market — and in any case they are powered by fossil fuels. If we did magically convert all fossil-fuel powered transport to electricity, Kelly argues, the capacity of the grid would have to treble. [If all city vehicles in Sydney were converted in the same way, virtually all buildings would have to be retro-fitted, at great expense to somebody, and grid capacity would have to be increased dramatically, again at great expense. What great good would come from this sweeping change?]
Kelly’s conclusions follow. So far, I have described the scale of the global energy sector, how it has come to be the size it is, the current drivers for more energy and the current status of attempts to decarbonize the global economy. I can draw some initial conclusions at this point.
• Energy equals quality of life and we intervene there only with the most convincing of cases.
• Renewables do not come close to constituting a solution to the climate change problem for an industrialised world.
• China is not the beacon of hope it is portrayed to be.
• There is no ground shift in energy sources despite claims to contrary.
This is not the end of his lecture. He goes on to talk about the engineering problems of alternative energy sources, whose power-to-weight ratios are tiny in comparison to a gas turbine or a nuclear reactor. He doubts that there can be a marked improvement in battery technology: Modern lithium-ion batteries are better[than the lead-acid type], but not much: all the R&D over the last 40 years has given a 50-fold increase in energy density, but we are now approaching the limits allowed by the materials as we know them. In other words, there is not another 1000-fold improvement to be had that might allow batteries to compete with petrol. The reason is clear: all the chemical energy in all the relevant chemical bonds in petrol is available when the fuel is burned. In a battery, most of the weight is not converted to useable energy.
This is such a good, authoritative, well-supported and well-written piece. You can transfer his arguments to our own country with ease. It makes for sobering thought, and ought to be read by every policymaker in Australia.