2052

Story of an energy transition went awry

Ruins. Image credit: Natalya Letunova via Unsplash

2052: electricity is only available to a lucky few living in gated communities. Temperatures have continued their march upwards, surpassing a 3 degrees Celsius increase compared to preindustrial levels with ease. As a result, most of the governments around the world have failed to maintain civil order, and countries have fractured into a bunch of loosely connected city states. Surrounded with rural villages and separated by vast uninhabitable dead zones, these are now the last strongholds of a fallen civilization. Fossil fuels still provide 80% of their energy, just like half a century ago, although global consumption is but a tiny fraction of what it used to be back in the good ol’ days.

How the hell did we end up here? Where did it all went wrong…?

…if it can’t go on forever it will stop. And if we never do anything that we can’t go on doing forever we will never do very much.

Herbert Stein

Our admittedly fictional story starts in 2021. Natural gas prices literally shot through the roof, along with the cost of electricity and many critical raw materials, including copper, zinc and aluminum. Pundits advising governments blamed the fast recovery of the economy after one year of repeated lockdowns. In fact this energy crunch was due to a rapid increase in overall electricity use, combined with the fossil fuels industry’s inability to significantly increase it’s output. Oil extraction was not able to reach pre-pandemic levels despite soaring demand. Only a few marginalized voices dared to mention, that renewables were not adequate to take up the slack, and that global energy production was showing the first signs of hitting limits to its growth.

In the early twenties all of Earth’s cheap, easy to access, albeit finite reserves of natural gas, oil and coal were already being extracted at their maximum rate possible. All of remaining spare capacities were thrown into the mix, and it still wasn’t enough. Most oil companies even collected then pumped their own CO2 emissions into their rapidly depleting wells to force just a little more petroleum onto the surface, just a little longer… while selling the effort as a way of “saving” the planet by burying tons of the planet heating gas.

Meanwhile Europe was in a full swing switching to renewables and closing down heavily polluting coal fired power plants together with their aging nuclear fleet — well before their due date. It was a common sentiment of the time, that solar and wind are just as good for electricity production as their polluting predecessors — while no one was giving a single thought to their intermittency and utter dependency on fossil fuels.

The first bruise with reality arrived in late 2021, providing ample evidence that when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine renewables do need a lot of support from natural gas… Thus pushing demand for it through the roof. This process was especially painful in Europe, where the extraction of this finite resource have fallen precipitously from 2000 onward. Contrary to the widely accepted myth though, this was not due to a voluntary switch to renewables, but due to the merciless depletion of the continent’s oil and gas fields under the North Sea and in the Netherlands.

The 2020s also proved that depletion of finite resources is not confined to a single continent. China had to realize this rather inconvenient truth with its coal “production”. Russia experienced the same with oil — finding itself unable to surpass its pre-pandemic levels of extraction. So did Saudi Arabia and the United States — both forced to experience an unwanted peak and an ensuing relentless fall to their petroleum production in the second half of the decade. By the end of the twenties global oil extraction fell by a fifth compared to its all time high in November, 2018. Needless to say natural gas could not keep up with surging demand and started to fall soon after oil.

It’s worth mentioning here, that you don’t need to completely run out of a resource (in this case oil, and later gas) to experience severe problems. It’s completely enough to experience a peak in its production, followed by a long slow decline. A relentless 3 to 5% fall year after year was enough to send the global economy into a downfall it never seen before.

Raw material and semiconductor shortages were abound these years, most of them caused by the high price of energy, and the resulting curtailments from governments. This has led to a slow down in the widespread adoption of so called renewables, ensuring a permanent decline in overall power generation. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, of course, since all products were (and still are) made from finite raw materials using finite sources of condensed energy. According to the ruling sentiment of the age however, humans possessed an infinite ability to solve any technical problems, or to replace just about any resource. Depletion was a non-existent phenomenon.

As always though, the Universe did not care much what dressed up mammals on a tiny planet thought about their powers.

The resulting shock to the economy was hard to explain using classical economic mambo-jumbo. Devoid of any concepts describing planetary limits, pundits blamed lack of investments, bad policies, ESGs, the greens, other nations… Everything and everyone but the true reason, resource depletion and overshoot. Governments threw all what they had at hand on the “problem”: stimulus packages, universal basic income, even lowering interest rates back into negative territories. Some have even experimented with a debt jubilee. Needless to say: none of this worked. No one could print cheap energy or more resources.

Of course, “the powers that be” were unwilling to admit that predicaments, lacking solutions, have outcomes only. Resource depletion, starting with oil and natural gas was one of these predicaments. By the late twenties the party of endless growth was over.

Without enough natural gas to fill in the gaps in electricity production, and without adequate baseload from coal and nuclear, electric grids providing 24/7 power have started to have major problems. While there were only a very few blackouts before 2020 in the “developed” world, towards the end of the decade more and more people experienced more and more of it. Until 2030 only one or two a year, sometimes none. After that date however blackouts become increasingly frequent. By the forties they’ve become rather commonplace. Those who could afford it, bought a generator or solar panels with a battery pack, but ever increasing fuel prices and material shortages made both increasingly unaffordable for the masses. Entire regions suffered from the same dilemma: as energy (both of fossil and renewable origin) became ever more scarcer, it was harder and harder for countries to maintain an uninterrupted electricity service. Large national, and international grids (like in Europe) were broken up into smaller and smaller regional networks.

Wars waged over the last remaining resources weakened states and their infrastructure even further. Lacking the energy and materials to rebuild roads, dams, power lines, transformers and the rest, large swathes of land became permanently lost to civilization. Climate change just made these matters even worse. Collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, together with the rapid melting of Greenland ice raised sea levels by several feet in a matter of years. Once thriving communities were depopulated quickly, sending waves of refugees into nearby cities, where electricity, fuels and medical services were still available. Modern civilization however was increasingly reserved for the lucky few living around some still operating hydro or nuclear plants in Norway and France, or some still polluting coal fired plants in Australia and in the USA…

People living in between these locations had to get by with scavenged solar roofs and small wind turbines made from car generators and lead acid batteries — but the limited usability of such intermittent power sources without a reliable backup from the gird questioned the very reason to maintain them. Not even a fridge would operate using renewables only without the risk of spoiling what’s stored inside. As a result, more and more places came up with truly sustainable low-tech options to provide food and shelter for their residents. While elites were clinging to the last remaining comforts of their old lives, the de-industrial revolution was in full swing around the world.

The loss of high heat from fossil fuels (comparable to their 2000s levels of availability) has put the reproduction or repair of solar panels, turbines and many other convenient gadgets at scale out of question. What little manufacturing capacity was remaining around power hubs was reserved to serve the needs of local elites; commoners were expected to sacrifice all their material desires. Sometimes even more.

The post-apocalyptic world depicted in the role playing computer game Fallout 1 and 2 in the 1990s have become our reality by the second half of the century — even without a global nuclear annihilation happening. Cities which still had access to power have surrounded themselves with concrete walls and barbwire, or have welded thousands of unused cars into walls of steel; turning outsiders away without exception. Farms providing food to them, using ever scarcer diesel fuels and fertilizers were guarded by heavily armed militias, fending of the random attacks of poorly organized groups of marauders.

Global population numbers plummeted. By the end of this tumultuous century barely a billion humans have inhabited Earth. Many ecosystems were crushed or devastated by the ravages of mankind, backed by the forces of climate change. But as always with death and collapse the seeds of a more sustainable future was sown already. People have learned to live with less, and started to rebuild what they could with their own hands. Habitats, once polluted to death started to recover. Rivers. Forests. Shorelines. We are still far from healing all the scars left by the 20th and 21st century, but with industrialism gone at least now there is hope, that future will be better than the past. A new renaissance is on the horizon.

Epilogue

This is how a seemingly flourishing global civilization can disintegrate in a matter of decades under the loss of its primary energy source and the crushing weight of its infrastructure ponzi… Of course, the story I’ve outlined here is just one of many future scenarios, and thus has a very little chance to come about exactly as I’ve written. Seeing the current struggle in the energy business, and the political tensions it brings about however, makes something along these lines more and more likely to me.

We are living in precarious times, dangerously exposed to the depletion of once abundant resources. As of today, renewables make up only 4% of global energy use (of which electricity is a mere 20%, the rest is coming from industrial processes, heating, moving and transporting goods and people). Not much has changed since the 70s and now, with oil and gas becoming ever harder to recover, it becomes ever more questionable to me whether we will have the power to make the desired change so late in the game…

Who knows, maybe that is our generation’s role in this grand theater play going on for tens of millennia. The wheel of time keeps rotating, and our little lives might as well represent the topmost arc-second. Maybe we shall see the lifestyle of our ancestors again… With easy to access resources gone, once this civilization goes down and once all it’s remains have been used up, future generations will have no chance to restart something remotely as “advanced” and complex as this one. To the contrary, I find it more likely, that future civilizations — if there will be any — will be much local and smaller in scale; not even a second Roman empire is possible to build now…

The stone pillars of the Olduvai Gorge bear witness to our struggles in silence.

Until next time,

B

Notes:

Olduvai theory postulated by engineer Richard C. Duncan, and written about extensively by Steve Bull, refers to a complete loss of civilization due to a loss of electricity and high density fuels, namely oil. According to it, we will inevitably return to a second stone age, and live once again like our ancestors in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania... A conclusion I myself have arrived to (although coming from a different direction).

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A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation.

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