The scale of our addiction

We have a problem.

Every time a Canadian puts in an hour of work into the paid economy, the equivalent of over three years worth of human work energy is released from fossil fuels on his behalf, well over 1000 hours.  Unless we can each work 1000 times as hard, we urgently need to figure out a different model of living before fossil fuels end.  And fossil fuels will end not too far in the future, either through resource exhaustion or through measures specifically designed to stop their use for climate reasons.

The solutions are challenging but available.  We need to embrace them while we have time.

Roughly half of the energy released from fossil fuels is lost as heat in car engines, coal and gas-fired generating facilities and industrial processes.  Simply by moving to renewable electricity, we can dramatically reduce our energy needs.  Electric car engines are over 5 times as efficient as those that run on liquid fuels.  Heat losses in wind turbines are negligible.

What is termed as “useful energy” also needs rethinking.  Is it useful to heat a leaky home and watch the warmth escape into the cold night air outside?  Is it useful to haul two tons of metal when your real objective is to carry a person?  Is it useful to keep appliances operating or on standby when no one is there to appreciate them?

Finally, we’re using more and more fossil fuels just to find the fossil fuels, get them out of the ground, refine them and deliver them to us.  We’re digging farther and deeper for ever smaller and poorer deposits of fossil fuels.  This problem is only going to get worse unless we get off this treadmill.  By making a conscious decision to reduce our use of fossil fuels, we’ll reduce the need for more expensive and energy-intensive extraction.

But even then, we’ll still need to replace the equivalent energy of perhaps 300 hours of work for every hour we put into the paid economy.  That is a huge challenge and we have a very limited time to do it.

Another way of looking at the problem is taking the average cost of wind energy and applying it to the energy released from all fossil sources.  We can assume that in a wind-based economy, every time energy can be delivered more cheaply by efficiency, conservation or other sources, it will be.  On the other hand, there will undoubtedly be some costs for new transmission and storage in a wind-based economy, which will add to the costs.

If we assume that overall costs will be about double the costs for wind generation alone, I’ve calculated that we would need to devote 7.7% of current global GDP every year for 40 years to eliminate our fossil fuel inputs.  These costs involve the manufacture and installation of wind turbines, related technologies, storage, transmission and any cheaper alternatives where possible.  They do not include the cost of mining and smelting metals, manufacturing parts, transporting parts and raw materials or other inputs.

Just to impress a little bit of the scale of this challenge, keep in mind that the auto industry is a mere 4% of the North American economy.  The global arms industry is another 2% of the global economy.  Manufacturing turbines is very energy intensive and high in associated emissions.  If we commit to this path, we must be prepared to switch over other parts of the economy to this endeavor if we want to have any hope of reducing emissions simultaneously.

It is an enormous challenge, but the alternatives are unthinkable.

It’s time to vote Green.

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