Tuesday, 31 May 2016

What’s Fueling our Future? – A Panel Discussion at the University of Alberta

What’s Fueling our Future? – A Panel Discussion at the University of Alberta

Some weeks back (April 18, 2016),  there was a panel discussion at the University of Alberta, entitled “What’s Fueling our Future?”.   It is part of the Mindshare Series, conversations on “issues that really matter”, and was put on by Universities Canada (formerly known as AUCC).

The panel consisted of:

·        Imre Szeman, University of Alberta, CRC in Cultural Studies with the Petrocultures group.

·        Andreea Strachinescu, with the Directorate General for Energy, European Commission.

·        Junjie Zhang, School of Global Policy and Strategy, UC San Diego.

·        Thom Mason, director Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee.

The overall topic of the conversation related to Energy, especially the transition from fossil fuels to renewables.  This will, of course, have an impact on the entire globe.  Those impacts will span many perspectives, from technology, science, environment, politics and sociology.

The province of Alberta, Canada is at the nexus of this, as fossil fuel production plays a major role in the province’s economy.  The University of Alberta is a major player in energy research, rates as one of the top ten research universities in energy matters in the world.  So, the U of A is a good location for such a talk.

Below is my summary of the discussion.  I hope it captures the essence of the talk and accurately reflects the speaker's viewpoints.

Speaker 1 - Imre Szeman: From Petroculture to Other Cultures, On the Social Transitions Connected to Energy Transition

Professor Szeman, a Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies,  is part of group known as Petrocultures, at the University of Alberta, who look at the sociological and cultural aspects of energy.  His talk therefore was a fairly high level look, spanning technical, political, social, scientific and environmental aspects of the question.

So, what is a Petroculture?  Basically, it’s us.  We (especially Canada) are societies organized around fossil fuels.  Most countries are Petrocultures, to one degree or another.  Being a Petroculture relates to physical and environmental issues, but it also relates to the mental habits and attitudes that we have, due to being a petroleum based society.

The professor noted that we are fossil fuels “all the way down”.  Our values are deeply entwined with fossil fuel use, and it has been said that “our freedoms are energy intensive” (Dipesh Cherbratarty).

Energy is part of our “social unconscious”, and that is currently dominated by fossil fuels.  Eventually, we will have to pivot away from this (petroleum is finite, and global warming adds to the urgency), but there will be conflicts over fossil fuel along the way.  Fossil fuels have allowed much bigger populations than previously attainable, and have opened up many options that were not realizable in the past (e.g. easy transportation, commuting as a way of life, intercontinental tourism).  Alternatives are often recognized at the input level (e.g. electric cars vs internal combustion engines), but we will likely have to go much deeper than that – many behaviours will have to change radically (e.g. much less commuting, rather than just transforming the way we commute). 

Fundamentally, he pointed out that in the future, moving away from fossil fuels will imply using less energy overall.  But our deeply ingrained mental habits associate physical and psychological well-being with using lots of energy, so those fundamental mental habits will have to shift.  That mental shift will be hugely contested by the status quo, both the economic forces that benefit from the status quo, but also our own ingrained habits will resist the shift away from Petroculture.

Speaker 2 – Andreea Strachinescu, New Energy Technologies and Innovation, Europe

Andreea Strachinescu is head of the New Energy Technologies and Innovation, Directorate General for Energy, European Commission.

Andreea Strachinescu talked about policies and developments in Europe, regarding their energy transition.  Europe has ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gases, transition to renewables, and integrate their energy systems. 

To begin with, she outlined some major challenges:

  • Europe is still very reliant on fossil fuels.
  • Those fossil fuels are mostly imported.
  • Since 2007, there has been a European policy to replace those with non-imported sources.
  • The use of renewables has increased substantially, but it is still relatively low, relative to targets.
  • There are challenges about variable production of renewables, and how best to integrate them into the existing grid.
  •  There are also issues related to different national priorities and how those can be dealt with, within a common overall European framework.

o   There are historical and traditional economic linkages to consider.
o   There is a lack of existing energy corridors, for an integrated system.
o   Only about 10% of the electricity network is integrated within the European grid.

  • The European Union is expected to continue to require imports, and this will increase in the near future.
  • Natural gas remains a big component of the energy picture.  Liquid natural gas makes up a significant proportion of that.
  • The share that renewables takes care of varies within Europe.  Some countries are much further along, in the energy transition.
  • This variability means there must be flexibility built into the system.
  • Heating and cooling account for about 50% of European energy consumption.  The use of more renewables is planned for these purposes.

  • Two of Europe’s big concerns are:

o   Security of supply.
o   Stability of costs.

  • Climate change is also a major concern, of course.
  • In generally, renewing grids has three aims:

o   Security of supply (i.e. so that non-European countries can’t cut off needed energy imports).
o   Sustainability (so that costs are predictable and supplies are reliable).
o   Competitiveness (so that costs don’t make European economies uncompetitive in comparison with other regions of the world.

  • Targets for 2020:

o   Reduce greenhouse gases by 20%. (on track)
o   Increase renewables by 20%. (on track)
o   Increase energy efficiency by 20%. (not likely, as this requires changes in behaviour, but might hit 17%)

  • Targets for 2030

o   Reduce greenhouse gases by 40%
o   Increase renewables by 27%.
o   Increase efficiency by 27%.

  • Reaching these targets will require a combination of:

o   Reducing the cost of renewables.
o   Integrating them into the system effectively.
o   Changing behaviours, to increase efficiency.

  • Increasing building efficiency will be a major contribution (many old buildings, poorly insulated, rural areas, etc.)
  • Decarbonisation efforts will require new technologies and new processes, behaviours to increase efficiency.
  • Research and innovation will be needed to support these initiatives, especially:

o   Wind
o   Solar
o   Electricity grid integration

  • But, societal efforts are needed to change behaviours of consumers and businesses (e.g. business processes), along with renewable developments and innovations.  This implies the need for :

o   Smart houses.
o   Smart grids.
o   Smart cities.
o   Smart transportation.

  • Carbon capture methods are being reviewed, but they tend not to be popular.  Pilot projects have not been very successful.
  • Nuclear energy is used by some countries, and some will continue with nuclear.
  • Europe plans to partner with other parts of the world, especially for research into renewables and related energy transition.

Speaker 3 – Junjie Zhang: Economy, Energy and the Environment - the Case of China

Jungie Zhang is an associate professor, at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego.  He specializes in economic modelling, that incorporates micro behaviour at the systems level.

Professor Zhang’s discussion focussed on China, a view from the outside, as there is considerable scepticism about official figures from China.  Here are the highlights:

  • Given its size and continuing economic development, China obviously has a huge impact on the world economy and on the world’s environment.
  • This includes both supply and demand factors for fossil fuels, and global warming.
  • There has been a enormous increase in energy use, in the recent past.  In fact, since early 2000, China has become the world’s largest energy consumer.
  • Per capita usage is still fairly low, but it has increased substantially in recent years.
  • This has primarily been driven by increasing industrial use.  Note that the U.S. has been fairly stable during the same period.
  • Household use has also gone up, though, and that extends to pretty well all income groups.  This household use is still relatively low, but that leaves lots of room for potential growth, which is likely.
  • Energy production and consumption vary geographically within China, with production being highest in the northwest, and consumption in the east.
  • Coal accounts for 66% of energy consumption, but this is coming down.
  • There are several reasons for this, but the main one is air pollution caused by burning coal, which is a huge problem in China.
  • This is a major concern of the rising middle class in China, and therefore is a politically important problem to resolve.
  • In fact, pollution is the main constraint on energy use in China right now, due to its real and significant effects on human health.

  • China is now a bigger greenhouse gas producer than the U.S. - a big part of this is its reliance on coal.
  • China’s per capita greenhouse gas production is now greater than the European Union.
  • Looking towards the future, China’s energy consumption will continue to rise, through 2020.  However, its energy use per GDP should decline.
  • Carbon emissions will continue to rise through 2020, though China has promised to turn this around by 2030.

  • Two big questions:

o   Will China maintain the level of growth it has seen in the recent past?
o   Can you trust official figures?

  • China says it will maintain economic growth of around 7%, but there is a lot of uncertainty around that number.
  • This is important, because electricity and other energy consumption tends to follow economic growth.
  • Efforts have been made by independent researchers, to validate official growth figures.  For example, satellites have been used to measure NO (nitrous oxide) concentrations, as a proxy for economic activity.  These have tended to give different results than official growth figures, sometimes indicating less growth, and sometimes more growth, than the official figures.
  • Will China continue to grow?  Yes.
  • Can China “peak” its CO2 production by 2020? No.
  • Can China “peak” its CO2 production by 2030? Probably.
  • It should be noted that China has the same tensions regarding fossil fuel versus renewables as many countries that are both producers and consumers.  For example, China seems to have slowed down its uptake of renewables recently, in order to protect fossil fuel jobs.

Speaker 4 –Thom Mason: Science and Technology for the Energy Challenge, a U.S. Perspective

Thom Mason is the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Thom Mason describes himself as a “technological optimist”, but recognizes that there is a lot of work to do, in regards to the necessary transition away from fossil fuels.  He notes that the human race has solved huge problems in the past via technological breakthroughs, though, using the invention of nitrogen fixing as an example.  That staved off a food supply crisis, which appeared to be inevitable in the early 20th century. 

Below is his take on the current situation.

Constraints on the energy transition:

  • Environmental impacts.
  • National/global security impacts.
  • Economic consequences.
  • Impacts on developing countries.
  • No “single point” solution is likely, now or in the future.  There will be many solutions, all addressing different aspects of the problem.

Climate change

  • It is a difficult problem, because of the time scales involved, relative to “normal” problems.
  • Also, there is a great deal of distance (physical, social, economic) between energy use and its production.
  • But, there are huge economic, environmental, health and security risks involved in global warming.

Energy Transition

  • There is a major transformation required, in global energy systems.
  • Efficiency gains are needed.
  • Electrification of transport is needed.
  • More use of renewables, and related research, is needed.
  • Carbon sequestration - continue research but don’t rely on it ever being very significant.
  • Nuclear energy.  More might be helpful, but it comes with its own baggage, social, economic and environmental.
  • Basically, many more scientific advances are needed.
  •  Also, we need new means of translating scientific advances into practical uses.
  • The Paris Climate agreement had a “Mission Innovation” program, which should spur R&D in renewables, though it can’t solve the CO2 problem entirely.


The four speakers then took questions and had a bit of a round table discussion.  It was widely agreed that the problem is much more than technical in nature - social and behavioural changes have to be a large part of the solution.  It was noted that attitudes can change - for example, driving a hummer is no longer a status symbol in California.  Hybrids and Teslas have taken the place of the hummer.  It’s a small example of how social change can help address climate change.



A Sci Fi book with a Global Warming Aspect

And here’s a science fiction novel which includes plenty of action on a planet that has been devastated by a global warming episode, several centuries before the story starts (“the drowned planet”).  It’s good to occasionally take a break from real science, and read some science fiction :)

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