Getting the transition to a post-carbon-energy future right ~ Dave Wilkin

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The transition to a post-carbon-energy future will happen this century, driven either by our responses to climate-change risks, or the depleting of accessible/affordable oil and gas reserves. How we manage this transition is critical. Move too quickly (ignoring market/technology limitations and realities), we create affordable energy shortfalls, driving widespread social and economic disruption and geopolitical conflict. Move too slowly, we risk experiencing both long-term environmental impacts and affordable energy shortfalls. Unfortunately, time is running to get it right; we now face more difficult choices and increasing costs.

My earlier articles on this topic, Has climate-change politics hit a wall and  Nuclear-based energy remains today’s only viable replacement of carbon-based energy, focused on important but less well publicized energy, technology and population/economic growth rate facts, and a few lessons political leaders should have learned. Here are actions I believe governments, businesses, media and people should be taking now. Sadly, most of these actions are languishing or entirely absent.

Government (including research institutions):

  • Build credibility. This means ending wishful thinking, impossible targets, rhetoric and political spin. Communicate the facts about the real costs, timelines, technology limitations and trade-offs involved, then actually listen to the people. This is essential for critical buy-in to plans, the pace, costs, and outcomes expected.
  • The high global economic/population growth rates in developing/emerging countries render hitting the carbon emission reduction targets impossible, regardless of what developed nations, like ours, do. Long overdue is an honest open discussion around what level of global growth is environmentally sustainable.
  • Stop closing nuclear power stations, and begin investments in upgrades and building new, safer, ones. New designs are emerging that produce less radioactive waste, are less costly, and faster to build. Nuclear power is the only zero-carbon energy option that can scale to replace most of today’s carbon-based energy.
  • Ramp-up investments and upgrades in electric power-grids, scaling with growing demand. This should include broader geographic grid interconnections and ‘smart-grid’ technologies, improving efficiency, load-balancing and enabling energy storage.
  • Invest in improved climate-change/economic model interactions. This is critical to better understand and manage the trade-offs involved. Current models are deficient and suspect.
  • Increase incentives for businesses to invest in new technology for cleaner energy and conservation.
  • Fund basic research in large-scale atmospheric carbon-removal.
  • Plan for a warmer climate, including looking at where new development/growth occurs, and how to mitigate impacts for the most at-risk areas. Look for opportunities in areas that may benefit from a warmer climate.

Business:

  • Scale back production in low-cost countries lacking measurable commitment to environmental protection, carbon emission and human-rights standards.
  • More investment in lower emissions technologies, energy efficient operations, products and services.

Main Stream Media:

  • Break out of the “echo chambers” – eliminate biases, selective reporting, “fake news” and headline grabbing ‘over-hype’. Stick to fact-based, balanced reporting.

The people:

  • Look beyond popular headline stories. Seek to understand the facts and trade-offs involved from a variety of credible sources, then hold government leaders accountable to listen, and for their honesty, fairness, realism and action.
  • Look at where the products you buy come from. Avoid countries with poor environmental standards and low government transparency/accountability (cheap is often not better if you must frequently replace it). Buy local produce, whenever possible.
  • Invest in energy conservation.
  • Plant trees, nature’s carbon-sink.

The transition won’t be easy, certainly not painless, and will likely take place over three generations or more. There is no one ‘silver bullet’ solution. Most nations, Canada included, lack balanced, well thought-out, realistic targets and plans. The implications of getting the transition wrong are enormous, and we all have a role to play and a stake in getting it right.

Dave Wilkin, Masters, Electrical Eng., P. Eng.

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10 Comments

  1. A very intelligent and well-balanced article, Mr. Wilkin! I do, however, have 3 queries/comments:
    .
    1) is there any comfortable, efficient use of electricity for heating, besides electric/hot water?;
    .
    2) you appear to be speaking out of both sides of your mouth when championing the fight against climate
    change, while encouraging them to take advantage of the warmer climate caused by it; and
    .
    3) how does one remove carbon from the atmosphere?

    • Thanks Rob. Re questions, here is my best shot.
      1. Electric can drive heat pumps (either air or groundwater based), and extract more efficiency than straight resistive heating. I use to have one, but found the cost effectiveness not enough to offset the disappointing low grade of heat produced.. very annoying in cold winter months. Also, heat pumps, like AC, seem to break too frequently.

      2.Maybe a bit of clarification. We should be transitioning off carbon in an orderly, acceptable way (avoiding the chaos of limiting supply or stupid high taxes). That will take generations to do, in the meantime, if predictions prove right, warming will continue. My point is if it’s likely to continue, may as well take advantage of the few areas likely to benefit. Why not? Maybe to help offset the big costs/investment in transitioning.

      3. That’s a tough one. Todate there are no proven scalable solutions. There is some research on going, including around massive carbon capture & storage (CCS), but results so far are not promising. Also
      Geoengineering (messing with the atmosphere to reduce incoming radiation), is dangerous.. don’t want to go down that path.. way too much risk.

      Hope that helps.

      • Unless I owned a Tesla, I don’t see the provinces building charging stations. I know the infrastructure would be expensive but with the glut of electricity surely some effort will have to be made soon to make it more convenient to buy a electric vehicle if this is the right route to go. Economies of scale will eventually reduce vehicle costs. I would purchase an electric vehicle but that won’t happen soon since we live in a condo. Who would pay the installation then? A dilemma.
        A carbon tax of seven cents won’t get me out of my truck. There’s too much cheap gas available to change people’s minds to switch from gas to EV. The carbon tax is nothing more than a tax grab.
        Are electric vehicles the way of the future or is there something else?

        • Roger, you’re right. Teslas have a different plug type from all others. For those like us living outside the city, the best option would be a plugable hybrid… that way you get the best of both gas when you need it, and electric for shorter runs. In condos, without 110/220 outlets handy, it’s a problem.
          As you say, who is going to pay for the new end customer outlets in public or shared garages? It’s a challenge. The full charge time for 110 V outlets is definitely an overnight thing. 220 V maybe 3 – 5 hours. Not practical for road side stops. Thus the problem on longer trips.
          These hybrids arn’t cheap, specially in trucks or SUVs (few even available yet) due to size of battery banks and electric motor required. Hopefully costs drop over time, as you say. It’s a long transition for sure. The current JT carbon tax route accomplishes little, it’s more for show really. No way it will be allowed to go up anywhere near $200, or more, per MT, which is what the experts claim is needed.

      • Thanks so much, Dave. Yes, it helps a great deal: I often ask questions in my comments, and to date, you are the only one to respond. We can all learn from the experts.

        • You’re welcome Rob, my pleasure. FYI, I don’t consider myself an expert on climate change by any measure, just well informed on the topic. It is extremely complex, thus the great challenge in setting a reasonable plan … I do, however, know a lot about electrical engineering/ power systems.

  2. Good article. Gets one thinking.
    Two things I’d like to see are….
    1- When they talk about electric cars, could someone please look realistically at the entire life cycle. Looking at the car as it comes from the showroom, with unrealistic and free (to the car owner) charging in the case of Tesla all on its own is false intelligence.
    What did it cost the environment to make the electric car vs the standard car?
    How recyclable is the electric car vs standard car?
    In reality, not just a rosy theory, where does the electricity to run an electric car come from?
    Bearing in mind the limitations of electric cars at this point in time, I wonder if they really save anything over maybe a small engine standard car, or possibly better still a hybrid?

    2- Can somebody explain again how the carbon tax is actually supposed to work? Much talk about it but not a clear explanation of how it will actually reduce carbon or is it just going to move money around a bit so that generally the rich get richer and the poor stay poor?

    • Hey Brian. Good points. On your 1st point, unless upstream power comes from low CO2 sources, nothing is gained going EV. That said, personally, my next car is a plugable hybrid, looks like best of all worlds. Hope the costs come down, though, still very epensive.

      On the carbon tax, from what I see, it just moves money around, as you say. It will do little on driving CO2 down. Its gives JT the appearance of doing something… after all, he was the one that signed that flawed Paris Climate agreement, and now needs to appear to be doing something.

      I believe he really doesn’t care if Alberta oil doesn’t get to markets. He is much more in the pockets of the green NGOs, lobbyists, and extreme progressives than industry or Albertans, who he has probably written off already.
      Sad.

  3. Brian Tapley, you are onto something there with your question #1 that irritates me every time I hear frantic cries from the likes of David Suzuki, NGO’s and others, to eliminate hydrocarbon based fuels, lest the end of the world is upon us.

    If we’re eliminating hydrocarbons, at any point, where do we get the concrete for the windmill tower bases? Or the steel and fiberglass in the tower itself and blades. What about the copper windings in the windmill generator? The aluminum solar panel frames? The glass? And all that shipping to get the parts assembled and installed.

    I will go out on a short limb and speculate that not one of us can go through the first 30 seconds of our day without touching something that doesn’t involve hydrocarbons in some form.

    I think a sustainable economy involving substantial energy from non-hydrocarbon sources is not in our future.

  4. And I do get tired of hearing Minister McKenna’s mantra that the enviroment and economy go hand in hand. Hardly. I do belive that nuclear is the way to go since the carbon footprint is zero until a better fuel comes along. I wonder how the Jetsons plane was run?
    I agree with the hybrid and its my choice of rental cars when I travel. We do have a 10KW system on our building with a 20 year FIT contract and when the contract is up what then since current battery power is cost prohibitive and what landfill site will take all these solar panels, windmill parts and vehile batteries.
    Maybe Elon Musk will find a solution?

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