Energy Transition

For decades many of us took energy for granted. Light, sound, warmth, mobility, entertainment and the production of food and other goods were always ‘just there’. Electricity  was bountiful and available and it became a ‘given’. Many others, of course, lived without electricity or were said to be the energy poor – as a trait of the poor in general. Nevertheless, we rarely reflected on the consequences of our insatiable thirst for more electricity.

A few centuries ago human kind embarked on a road never taken before; the scientific and industrial revolution. Through technologies of various kinds we harnessed energy by processes of harvesting, capturing, conversion and storing. We developed steam engines at first, then electricity, light, radio, the internal combustion engine and nuclear power. All of these were based on coal, oil, gas and metals such as uranium. All involves digging into the earth – we became miners who ‘exploit’ earth bound resources, burn it and then, unsuccessfully attempt to mitigate the effects of the waste. The industrial revolution was driven (like our modern economy) by fossil fuels. This transition had far reaching consequences; populations grew exponentially, nation-states were formed, trade intensified and new industries were established. The fossil fuel industry became enormous (electric appliances, motor cars, plastics, fertilizers, etc.) and all the large companies of the 20th century were fossil fuel based. Exxon, Shell, General Motors, Siemens, Phillips, General Electric, Billiton, Rio Tinto, Toyota, to mention a few, became the largest companies in the world and were all feeding off the fossil fuel base.

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They, in fact, became so large and the interests in them so extensive, that they could not (and still today) afford to stop burning fossil fuels; even in the face of much evidence that they are a serious threat to our environment, our health and the survival of mankind on this earth.

We wilfully ignored ‘doomsday’ prophets that warned us that this path is not sustainable. The Club of Rome published a book in 1971 that is now proven to be correct. They predicted that we will reach a point around 2030 where we run out of historically used energy resources (fossil fuels) as well as water and food. It would seem that the fossil fuel frenzy that dominated our earth over the last century is over. To continue as usual would be disastrous; hunger, poverty, social unrest, wars, economic decline and more pollution are certain outcomes. We are running out of affordable fossil fuels as well as water, food and sustainable economies and communities.

The penny has dropped; we need to look elsewhere for sources of energy.

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At the last G7 meeting in Germany in June, 2015, Angela Merkel brokered a deal that committed the G7 nations to “decarbonise the global economy in the course of this century”. We have numerous global institutions, governments and large economic players that have seen the light and are pushing for a transition from fossil based economies to renewable energy economies. In Denmark, Germany, India and Kenya, Malaysia, USA and Canada and now, lately, in South Africa, we see shifts taking place in investments away from fossil fuel and towards renewable energy. There are large consumer campaigns and organisations that aim to make this world a more sustainable one and, what was once a fringe activity (‘greenies’, ‘tree-huggers’, ‘anti-nuke’s’, and so on) is now rapidly becoming mainstream.

In short, we are experiencing a massive transition: from a fossil fuel based ‘mine-burn-waste’ logic to a cyclical logic of harnessing renewable energy to fuel our economies. This is a comprehensive transition; it will not only change our sources of energy, but will determine the way we organise things, think about economies, communities and society. As fossil-based energy shaped new industries and mentalities, so will renewable energy create new opportunities and different cultures.

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Photography Kali van der Merwe www.kali.co.za