World Energy Plan Triage
By Bill Moore
It was one of Napoleon's army surgeons who developed the practice of triage, classifying the wounded into three categories: those beyond medical help, those who were likely to survive their wounds, and those who if quickly attended to stood some chance of surviving. The latter group would be treated first, the others afterwards. It takes intelligence and remorseless pragmatism to make these life and death decisions.
Lately, I've been giving a lot of thought to the application of triage to a global energy plan, one which looks at where and how we use energy, petroleum and natural gas in particular. My strategy for developing an energy plan would use the same dispassionate criteria used to evaluate the causalities of war. In my view the need for such sober assessment is immediate and critical if we are to avoid potential disaster. The current energy plan under consideration in the US Congress is more an evasion plan than energy plan. It is heavily influenced by short-term political considerations, offering little in the way of a long-term vision beyond the current election cycle. Such myopia is a very bad idea.
My plan begins with the premise that non-renewable fossil fuels such as oil and gas will be exhausted (at least in economically recoverable terms) in the next twenty to thirty years, given the current rate of consumption. It could take less time or a bit longer, but it will happen, probably in our lifetime. In effect, the world is hemorrhaging to death, and we need to stop it, fast!
So, I sat down and came up with five steps to formulate and execute a global energy plan, which also can be applied right down to the local community and individual household level.
- We start by conducting a sweeping global inventory of where and how oil and natural gas are used, and how much is left that can be extracted based on the criteria defined in step four -- Most people would be amazed how much of our modern society is based on petroleum. We only think about it when we stop once or twice a week to fuel our cars and trucks, but virtually everything around us comes to us courtesy of oil or natural gas, and to a lesser extent coal. It's been estimated that for every 1 calorie of food we eat, it takes 10 calories of petroleum and natural gas to produce it. That's a shocking number, as is the 1,700 miles our fruits and vegetables travel, on average, to reach our tables.
We need an accurate inventory of global stocks and usage patterns in order to begin the next phase of the plan.
- Identify potential substitute energy sources, materials and technologies to replace those that currently rely on either petroleum or natural gas. -- The most obvious use of petroleum is in our transportation system, fueling hundreds of millions of cars, trucks, buses, ships, trains and planes. Here we've begun to explore substitute energy sources like hydrogen, electric power and biomass fuels. We're also starting to see promising growth in fuel-saving hybrid vehicles from cars to city buses. That effort needs to be accelerated, but not before shelving any technologies which are not likely to also meet the criteria set forth below in step four.
For example, does deciding to build more nuclear power plants to produce hydrogen for fuel cells -- either by electrolysis or advanced thermocatalytic processes -- make economic sense in terms of the total amount of energy it will take to build, operate, secure and decommission the plant? In other words, should we invest our limited energy "capital" of natural gas, coal and oil -- not manipulable paper money -- in a technology which will not produce a significant net energy gain over the life of the system?
Along the same vein, are there materials like hemp, which is currently outlawed in the United States, that can provide valuable substitutes for more energy intensive crops like cotton and wood pulp -- not to mention oils that can be used as fuels -- that we should be encouraging farmers to grow, instead of banning them? Does devoting millions of acres of rich agricultural land to monocropped corn, which in turn is fed to feeder lot cattle, converted to corn syrup or distilled into ethanol, make the wisest use of our limited budget of earth, rain and sun, irrespective of politics?
In effect, there are no sacred cows in triage. Everything is on the table, including cherished renewable energy systems like wind and solar. Next...
- Where no practical, near-to-mid-term -- meaning in 5 to 15 years -- substitute can be found, we must make a triage decision as to whether that product, technology or energy use "lives or dies." -- Under this system, first priority would be given to human survival needs, including the production of food, medicine and shelter.
For example, for all the hype about how efficient modern agriculture is, if you factor in non-sustainable fossil energy inputs, it quickly becomes apparent that a pre-petroleum-age farmer in 1890 actually produced more net calories than the average agribusiness operation in 1990. We have to immediately begin to reverse this situation, reducing the non-renewable inputs. The agriculture industry is beginning to recognize the advantages of growing its own energy from wind farms to biomass. More and more farmer's co-ops across America are adapting the use of biofuels like soy-based biodiesel, but here again, the net energy payback must be justified and proven. This includes reviewing what crops are grown, as well as how they are processed and distributed.
Second priority would be given to the production of non-petroleum-based energy systems that can demonstrate substantial net energy gain. For example, it takes an estimated 5 years for a silicon solar panel to generate a net energy gain, while a nuclear power plant can take 20 years or longer, according to Helen Caldicott. In a way, the selection criteria is a biological one. An energy system must "self-replicate" in order to survive the cut. If it can't produce sufficient energy over its operational lifespan to generate "offspring" -- and a reasonable surplus -- industrial evolution culls it. Period.
Last priority would be assigned to everything that doesn't fall under the first two priorities. These survive only if they can justify their existence within the context of step two, in effect creating a self-sustaining feedback loop that gradually weeds out the wasteful and the inefficient, unless society deems it preservable based on step four.
- Our triage decisions need to be guided by what renowned architect and environmental visionary William McDonough calls "eco-effectiveness." -- McDonough and his colleague, Michael Braungart developed a three-sided matrix representing ecology, economy and equity. The perfect compromise falls into the middle of the matrix where all three concerns are equally balanced.
Today, global capitalism often places far more emphasis on the economic side of the matrix at the expense of social equity (exploitation of cheap foreign labor) and the environment (industrial pollution). It erroneously assumes energy, resources and the environment are limitless.
- We must level with people and prepare them emotionally for change. -- If my assumptions about oil depletion are correct -- and it is only a matter of when, not if -- it is going to come as a traumatic emotional blow to the developed world, whose economic and social systems have, over the last century, become so heavily dependent on gas and oil. I liken it to a patient who unexpectedly learns from his physician that he has a serious and possibly, terminal illness. First there will be denial, then anger, next bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. The sooner the patient is leveled with, the sooner we can get on with the treatment.
Our community leaders need to prepare us for the changes that must inevitably follow, but they must first cope with this reality, themselves, dealing with their own emotional trauma. That takes time and maturity. Given the action or inaction of past and current Administrations and the Congress, there is little evidence that kind of candid, honest, and courageous leadership will be forthcoming.
My view is, it's up to each of us individually to provide the necessary leadership. Eventually our "leaders" will follow.
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