Imagine If

We humans have conquered the biosphere with our brawn and brains. Our ability to travel through forests, across deserts and in water demonstrates our mobility. Our investigative minds enable us to construct wonders from natural resources. Our prowess at domination allowed us to reduce competitor species either to the margins or to extinction. Now none remain to challenge us, except ourselves. And we do. Our aggressive tendencies have resulted in nearly ceaseless destructive warfare where some push others either to the margins or conquer them.

But imagine if we could exorcise this tendency. Imagine if we, as the dominant species, would forego our natural mobility and capabilities in favour of contentedly sitting motionless for hours at a time. Imagine if we were to simply stare at an immovable object while occasionally pressing down upon little cubes. We’d remain motionless in a chair for hours and days except for brief, occasional periods of vacation where we’d lie motionless on a beach. With time, we’d fade and our physical prowess would fade and we could no longer compete. And our tendency would be exorcised.

Now imagine if we gave this exorcistic activity a cool name such as ‘computer specialist’. And we engender a desire for much of the human population to forego natural tendencies and undertake this task; to remain motionless, without expending physical energy. Can you imagine this? And then can you imagine if energy for computers ceased and people were to become active again?

Wild turkey

Allocating Energy

Many of us assume a reliable energy supply. When we switch on an electric light at home, brightness prevails. But what if nothing happens when you flip the switch? Do you think the light bulb has failed? Or perhaps you wonder if the wiring has somehow disconnected? I bet that few consider a failure in energy supply; it’s been too reliable.

Take a look at the energy allocation shown in the image below. On the left of the image are primary sources of energy supply for the USA. These feed the end-use sectors on the right. If the supply is less than demand then consumption must also be less. Now imagine you could choose which gets less. Do you select one sector? For example, do you prevent residents from lighting their houses. Or, do you prevent industry from manufacturing products and employing personnel? Or do you simply reduce energy supply and let consumers manage as best they can?

Currently, there are well known energy supply issues in the United Kingdom, China and India. Presumably in these locales many discussions seek to resolve who receives energy and who doesn’t. Are we ready and willing to plan for a civilization with reduced energy consumption? Do you want to be part of the plan or do you want to simply manage as best you can when the time comes?

Rebuilding After COVID-19

Through the ages, lethal viruses continually attacked homo sapiens. While at personal levels the attacks can be devastating, they’ve not slowed human population growth. For instance, the Spanish Epidemic of 1918 killed about 2% of the global human population, a horribly huge number. Yet, on looking solely at population growth rate, this pandemic had no visible effect.

Currently our species is being attacked by another virus, COVID-19. Through great determination and effort we seem to be slowly countering its deadly effect. In consequence, we see many leaders setting post pandemic return-to-work targets. Often, they borrow now to pay later to keep our population busily consuming resources as demanded by the markets. In consequence, as COVID-19 surrenders, we expect to see our species return to business as usual meaning more people and higher consumption, especially energy consumption.

In 2019, our primary energy consumption exceeded 583 exajoules annually; sourced mostly from non-renewable sources. On average, each person’s annual energy consumption exceeded 75 gigajoules. This is a huge amount, being over 1.5 times greater than the average in 1965 and obviously a huge increase over preindustrial times. But the supply of fossil fuels will end. So, when we build back better after COVID-19, wouldn’t we be wise to enable lifestyles for the future 10 billion inhabitants that doesn’t rely upon fossil fuels?
Tree recycling

Electric Vehicles

Going green is our new mantra. This mantra espouses sustainability. While a clear definition of sustainability awaits, we do know that some things seem more sustainable than others. For example, electric vehicles get proclaimed as the new, sustainable transportation, i.e. they don’t emit green house gases. Let’s see if this satisfies our mantra.

Humans are enamored by vehicles. We have over 1.2billion in operation today. But transportation needs energy, about 1.1×1020Joules annually, much of which is for vehicles. Further, we should surpass 2billion vehicles by the year 2035 hence more energy is needed. As transportation is key to our GDP, then human prosperity may well depend upon continued infatuation.

Today, we produce 1×1020Joules of electricity. Fossil fuels generate about 63% of this. Fossil fuels are not sustainable. Currently, electric vehicles consume an insignificant amount of electricity. But, to meet our mantra, we need to remove fossil fuels from electrical production. And to meet future energy demand for vehicles, we need to at least double electricity production. This future for electricity isn’t sustainable.

From the above, can you see whether electric vehicles satisfy the mantra? Going green by replacing petrol burning cars with electric vehicles wouldn’t reduce energy consumption. It may sustain the GDP, at least temporarily. We ask, “Can we maintain personal transportation in our mantra and still go green?”

Solar Power Generation

Solar power generation is on a growth spurt. In 2018, it produced over 584 TWh of energy. Its capacity is nearly doubling every two years. Some see solar power as being the solution for global energy needs.

However solar power comes with costs. For one, there’s the need to fabricate panels, construct the collector facilities and then maintain operations. For another, all life forms below the solar panels will die-off as the Sun is their only source of energy and the panels capture all the sunlight. Thus, solar power usage needs to be rationalized with costs of other energy supplies.

Can we scale our energy challenge? Certainly; let’s see. In 2018, we consumed over 160,000 TWh of primary energy and it is increasing by about 1.5% annually. If solar power supplies all this then we’d need cover about 14 million square kilometres of land with solar arrays and then maintain operations.

This operational area is huge, greater than all of Europe. Further, implementing this solution would drastically, negatively affect the Earth’s biodiversity. Thus solar power generation has its place in the global energy supply mix but we need other, less costly, means to satisfy our energy challenge.