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The Last Resort

image credit: Image: Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy

An oceanic wave is destined to rise and then go down and dissolve into the ocean or break on the beach or rocks or wherever it might be. There is no wave that will keep rising endlessly and such is the case for the current wave of modernization that human civilization has been riding since the industrial revolution. The quest for endless economic growth, by whatever means, was based on fundamental flaws in modern economic theory which does not take into account the finite nature of resources of the planet.  The wave analogy is neither my invention nor imagination, it is there in many Climate Change cartoons - there is the big breaker, which is Climate Change and there are smaller ones like COVID.

There will always be problems on the supply side – food, land, crops, forests, air and water – everything is not only finite but also held in a delicate balance. Modernization, as we know it, is also in conflict with natural flora and fauna. We cannot endlessly remove forests, pollute rivers, build cities and emit gasses. With many lifeforms extinct and many other approaching extinctions, it is as if a great mischief has been done to this planet. There is the ethical issue as well – what rights we have of bringing an end to other species and of destroying habitats for our “perceived economic good.”  With the current mix of technologies, resource, and our approaches, the modernization wave has peaked and must now descend. In the next few decades, we have to manage this fall.

Now what has this wave analogy got to do with energy? Well, the fact is that whatever we have been riding ever since the beginnings of the industrial revolution - is actually “ENERGY”. Had it not been for the ease of energy conversion from coal, oil and water to motive power and electricity, the innumerable things that we do in the modern society would not have been possible. Without modern energy, we wouldn’t have factories, sky-scrappers, roads, shipping and aviation. Therefore, the problems that we see today are a direct or indirect result of the way we harness and manipulate energy. The outcome of the energy conversion process is not just “ENERGY” but also goods, services, factories, industry, cities, communication – everything that makes up the modern economy, which includes the markets, the multinationals, banks, finance – the entire gamut of the modern civilization. There are many who would turn away from such logic, assuming that this is just another doomsday mumbo-jumbo or rhetoric. However, none of us can disagree with one fact and that is of the finiteness of this planet. Once we agree that our resources are limited, we will also have to agree that we must reign in our desire and quest for “endless growth.”  We must stop cutting forests, stop building roads, stop concretization, stop polluting rivers and stop stopping photosynthesis. We must stop this overall decline in everything that makes Earth a living planet.

The realization that we are warming up the planet by emitting CO2 and other Green House Gasses (GHG) came too late. It came too late at the scientific level, but for it filter down to industrial and political level, has taken still longer and even now many people are half-convinced or not convinced. While there is awareness of what’s going wrong, the societal and political action is missing. So here we are, precariously balanced, on the wave that we ride as it gets ready to crash. In the long history of this planet, the talk of how soon the disasters can happen is immaterial and it makes little difference whether we go down in over the 50 years or 500 years. The point is can we arrest this slide before the point of no return? Many actions need to be taken up such as redesign of our buildings, habitats, towns and cities. The way we work and conduct business must also change. What are we waiting for? For the day when there are no Elephants, no butterflies, no birds and no fishes – apart from the major climatological disasters that will happen with greater intensity and frequency. If we are lucky, life on the planet will continue and we might avoid 6th extinction but if we are not, as shown in many Sci Fi movies, this planet will evolve into another lifeless Mars or Venus. So, we have to see how we go down.

COVID, also an outcome of the modern civilization, couldn’t have come at a better time as a “warning”. This Pandemic belongs to the modern civilization, not because it is a “Chinese Virus” as some politicians called it, but because globalization and modern means of travel turned it into a global Pandemic within a month of the outbreak. Also, the reason for this virus to jump from bats and snakes to humans is in the crowding of the wild in smaller and smaller spaces. This is an outcome of modern civilization driven by modern economic theory and commercialization. We designed our own death trap, at least of all those hundreds of thousands who succumbed to COVID.  It would be interesting if the economists accept one Law – that every thing cannot be measured in Rupee, ana and paisa (dollars and cents).  There are also other, rather “unspeakable” possibilities about the virus and the outbreak that have been talked about – of some deliberate human action . Fact remains, however, that knowingly or unknowingly, we have created vulnerabilities to human society about which we lacked any awareness. Ignorance is bliss as long as it lasts.

In Hindi and Urdu it is said “Lohay ko loha kaat ta hai” meaning that you can cut Fe by Fe (iron by Iron). Going by that analogy, the current global environmental crisis, which in great measure resulted from the manner in which we harnessed energy can only be addressed by an alternate way in which we still harness energy. You may have guessed rightly, I am talking about Energy Transition or Energiewiende.  

There have been two problems – one of the green house gas emissions and second one of the endless pursuit of economic growth (also seen as progress). It is these problems that have created a global crisis of great proportions. Energy Transition from coal, oil and gas to solar, wind and hydro energies can slow down global warming significantly.

While about two decades back, renewable energy technologies (RET) were looked upon as fringe technologies, in recent years RET have evolved and moved into a position that enables us to imagine an alternate energy system. Solar, wind, biomass, hydro, and wave – all these natural flows of energy promise a new energy system that can replace the fossil fuel based energy system. The trick is to somehow shift over from the current falling – shattering wave to another rising wave of renewable energies. There is a solution of the Renewable Energies that can at least slow down the slide but we have to do much more in the long-term sustainability. This appears to be the last resort.

On the other hand, major technological advancements in Renewable Energy Technologies such as Solar Photovoltaics and wind turbines have made it possible to have large scale grid quality electricity from these sources. A few years back wind turbines used to be set up predominantly at heights under 100 m and now we are going upto 130-140 m and of course the largest turbines are much bigger – for example Siemens 14 MW wind turbine has a 222 m rotor diameter and has to be set up on a tower of around 150 m or more. Increase in these two parameters – Tower height and Rotor diameter enables us to harness more energy and more power from a single location. Theoretically, at 0.3 coefficient of performance (efficiency) of the rotor, the power output at the shaft of this 14 MW wind turbine is a little more than 14 MW at 8 m/s. Some modifications in the rotor and rotor blade settings can enhance this output to   15-16 MW  and only a 20% increase in rotor diameter can result in a +20 MW turbine. Twice the rotor diameter, which will be difficult, will result in a 50 MW wind turbine.  However, a 20 MW wind turbine is possible in very near future. One can imagine tens of thousands of such wind turbines set up in the Offshore regions, which will lift energy generation from wind turbines many times.

Solar PV is also improving and efficiencies of even more than 30% are reported for some types of solar cells. Therefore, in near future, from the same area of land that is covered by wind and solar, we can double energy and power delivered. The other important aspect would be high capacity factors and low variance as larger areas of rotor will absorb more and more fluctuations in inertia.

New storage technologies are emerging such as gravity storage and electro-mechanical storage that function at device level.  On the other hand, one can explore other storage options, and the biggest of them is hydro. Therefore, replacing fossil  fuels such as coal, oil and gas as well as nuclear is feasible in near future (10 years). Having more and more electricity from renewable energy is possible and from the grid it can flow to battery vehicles or electrically driven modes of transport on the one hand, and to cooking on the other. Shipping industry is also increasingly looking at using smart sails (vertical blades) and storage systems in place of old age diesel and  oil engines.  Thus a lot many sectors in industry and economy can thrive on renewable energy.

Therefore, reconfiguring and rebuilding the energy system of the world is a major part of the solution. The other part is of reworking our business models and businesses to minimise daily travel to our offices or workplace and even travel to meetings and conferences by means of IT infrastructure. Thus it is important to re-look at all our models of livelihoods and sustenance and to make them more sustainable. There is also a huge economic benefit in rebuilding a sustainable world.

The solutions are there and as mentioned above, this is our last resort!    

Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 19, 2020

The realization that we are warming up the planet by emitting CO2 and other Green House Gasses (GHG) came too late. It came too late at the scientific level, but for it filter down to industrial and political level, has taken still longer and even now many people are half-convinced or not convinced. 

What an interesting point-- scientists first started warning the public decades ago, but who's to say what could have been accomplished if that was taken at face value when originally brought up and we tackled it then when the political climate was less divisive and we were able to come together akin to the space race to actually tackle the problem!

Jami Hossain's picture

Thank Jami for the Post!

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