Homo Electric, Part 1: The Trillion Dollar Time Trial
The story of the greatest technological challenge in human history
I sailed upon oceans, and I thought no challenge could be greater, and now men sail the void between stars.
Peter F. Hamilton, The Neutronium Alchemist
If you’ve spent any time reading space opera, you’ll be familiar with the moment when someone from an advanced civilisation arrives on a distant planet, and discovers that its inhabitants are using hydrocarbons as their primary energy source. Our genetically engineered, wisecracking heroine is suitably appalled or amused.
Getting most of your energy by setting black rocks on fire and blowing up dinosaur juice is, quite clearly, the behaviour of a backwards and savage people. It’s dirty and it’s dangerous. If intelligent life can invent internal combustion engines, then it’s also prescient enough to know that burning carbon will create a greenhouse effect and ruin the environmental conditions that allowed it to flourish in the first place. In order for a planetary society to advance, at some point it has to undergo a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. A systemic change that is both driven by and drives technological innovation, forges new political and economic systems and operates on a whole new scale.
Which sounds lovely, especially when you can deal with it in a few sentences in a fictional story.
Unfortunately, in the real world, we don’t know how a clean energy transition gets done. Our sample size for known planetary civilisations is one. We’ve never actually seen intelligent life successfully make it to zero-carbon.
The trillion dollar question: is it possible?
I’ve been thinking a lot about that question. In the next three decades, the human race is going to to try to pull off the largest and most important energy transition in our species’ history. If we get it right, it will transform every aspect of the way our society functions (just as all energy transitions have in the past). If we screw it up or if it happens too slowly, we will set in motion a chain of events that will result in unimaginable disaster.
What you’re about to read is a snapshot of the current state of play in the global energy situation, and a tour across the frontiers of what’s to come. It’s a three part, deep dive into energy disruption, not just in wind and solar, but batteries, electric vehicles, smart grids, the electrification of cooling and heating, air transport and shipping, industrial processes, fossil fuel subsidies, disinvestment campaigns…
I set out to understand what it truly means to make the transition to a low carbon energy system and came away with a new appreciation for how high the stakes are, a head full of numbers and a heart full of hope and fear. I don’t have any easy takeaways for you. But if you make it to the end, you’ll have a much deeper understanding of where the human race stands in our attempt to make the leap across the great energy divide.
There’s a lot of good news if you know where to look, plenty of sobering evidence, and some downright scary scenarios. It’s complicated. You have to be able to consider competing ideas, to combine the encouraging news with a recognition of just how much inertia is in the system, and increasingly alarming narratives about the catastrophic impacts climate change will wreak, or more accurately, is already wreaking. Throughout, I’ve tried as much as possible to channel Michael Liebrich, the head of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, who says, “The world doesn’t need fairy stories, it needs clear thought, robust analysis and data, data, data.”
What, after all, was the point of civilisation if not the well-being of citizens?
Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice
The World According to Grumpy Old Men
Coming up with new ways to turn energy into heat, light and motion is one of the most important drivers of human progress. If you spend any time digging into this topic, you’ll eventually end up at Vaclav Smil, perhaps the world’s foremost thinker on the subject. He’s an old, grumpy man who spent his childhood splitting firewood in cold Czech winters and says things like “I don’t like to eat out any more because so much restaurant food these days is pre-made.” He’s also extremely influential. No serious discussion about global energy is complete without him.
According to Smil, humanity has experienced three major energy transitions. The first was the mastery of fire, an evolutionary step forward that allowed us to release energy by burning plants. The second was the transition from hunting to agriculture. Human societies began deliberately converting sunlight into food, which allowed animals and humans in turn to provide extra energy in the form of muscle power. That era only ended just over a century ago. Third came industrialisation, where energy became the domain of machines: the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and the transformer. Those machines of course, were powered by fossil fuels: coal, oil and most recently natural gas.
In the current climate of sound and fury it’s easy to forget what an extraordinary gift fossil fuels have been to the human race. For centuries, they’ve turbocharged basic human needs such as food, clothing, shelter, and given us new material comforts that have raised our standards of living far beyond anything our ancestors could have imagined. The steam engine for example, was a miraculous improvement over animal and water power. It made new forms of work possible, led to mass electrification and when those steam engines were placed on rails they opened up entire continents to commerce and trade.
As we moved into the 20th century, we started getting really good at harnessing the power of oil. We used petroleum products to power our combine harvesters and to make the fertilisers and pesticides that eliminated hunger and starvation for billions of people. The mass production of cotton, hemp, flax and wool wouldn’t have been possible without fossil fuels and when we combined them with polyesters, nylons and rubbers ―materials invented by the petrochemical industry―they gave us new clothes to protect us from the burning sun, killing cold, cutting wind and soaking rain.
Oil ushered in a new age of mass production, accelerated electrification and eventually changed the face of the planet. It created new forms of urbanisation (high density living isn’t possible without elevators and air-conditioning) and new ways of living (cheap laminate for our floors, rubber seals to insulate our windows, paint for our walls and plastic to make our electrical wires safe). Oil quite literally fuelled a new age of better, cleaner transport (horses were a lot dirtier than buses and cars) and transformed the means of production in almost every industry. It also gave rise to a new era in geopolitics. New trade routes opened up, new energy superpowers were born and brand new metropolises sprung forth from our deserts.
Our energy system today is a world-spanning, mind-blowingly complicated tangle of turbines, tankers, transformers, pipelines, pylons, gas wells, wires and waterways, cars, coal mines, heaters and ovens. It’s what philosopher Timothy Morton calls a hyperobject, an “event or system or process that is too complex, too massively distributed across space and time, for humans to get a grip on.” Black holes are hyperobjects, the global weather system is a hyperobject, and so is the human brain, with its 85 billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of connections. We can conceptualise their basic outlines and we live with their effects, but they are quite literally beyond our ken.
That’s why it’s so hard for us to wrap our heads around what an energy transition actually looks like, and why we tend to underestimate how long it takes. Most people for example, associate the 19th century with coal, the 20th century with oil and believe the 21st century will inevitably be all about renewables. The historical record suggests otherwise. The 19th century may have been an age of industrialisation for England and the United States, but globally it was dominated by wood, charcoal and leftover crops (mostly straw). Coal only reached 50% of the global energy mix by 1900, and even today, a billion people get most of their energy from biomass and a third of the world’s population cooks on open stoves. The system has inertia.
Coal was actually the biggest energy source for most of the 20th century, and was only surpassed by oil in 1964. And only three major economies, the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States, have accomplished the third fuel switch, to natural gas. Yes, rapidly falling costs and growing investments have helped boost wind and solar power but these energy sources — like nuclear, oil and gas before them — are building on top of old ones, rather than replacing them. 18 years into the 21st century, biomass, coal, oil and gas supply 90% of the world’s primary energy and coal is still the world’s dominant source of electricity.
That’s a problem, because this wonderfully complex thing we’ve created, this energy hyperobject that’s the foundation of so much of our prosperity, is starting to create serious damage. When we burn fossil fuels they release huge quantities of carbon dioxide, sulphur, mercury and other nasty stuff into the atmosphere. When you blanket the planet in heat-trapping gases over a long period of time, it creates problems — ones that we’ve known about for a very long time.
Our energy system is dirty, dangerous and its destroying the planet.
We’re well overdue for the fourth energy transition, to clean energy.
Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it, and I can only dance in my chains.
Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem
The Fourth Energy Transition
When most of us think of clean energy, we associate it with electricity. You’ll often see this mistake in newspapers, who report that because a country or a city or a business is planning on getting all their electricity from renewables, they’re “moving to 100% clean energy.”
However, while electricity is a very important part of our energy system, it’s far from the only part. Burning fossil fuels for electricity only accounts for around a third of global carbon emissions. Other major sources of carbon emissions in the energy system include transport (that burns oil), the heating of homes and buildings (a lot of natural gas) and industry (that use oil, coal and gas). Concrete alone is responsible for around 8% of global CO2 emissions. If the cement sector were a country, only the US and China would emit more each year.
Combined with electricity, these account for around 70% of global carbon emissions, and they’re what I’m going to be concentrating on in this article. Then of course, you’ve got the emissions that come from agriculture, land clearing and deforestation. Those are crucial. Obviously they’re a major part of the energy system too, but if we included them in this story then we’d be here forever. And if you want to get really technical, then carbon emissions only account for about three quarters of total greenhouse gas emissions. Another 17% is methane from landfills, oil and gas wells, coal mines, and cow belches. And 7% is nitrous oxide from agriculture and wastewater management.
The point I’m trying to make here is that while carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas, it’s not the only greenhouse gas. Likewise, electricity is an important component of energy, but it’s not the only aspect. If we want to reduce the world’s carbon emissions then yes, cleaner electricity is a good place to start. But it’s only the beginning. All the planes, trains and automobiles? We have to figure out a way of getting them to run cleanly too. We’ve got to figure out new ways to heat our homes and cook our food. All the steel, concrete and plastic whose production depends on fossil fuels? We need to come up with new ways of making them. We have to keep creating all the basic things that modern societies need.
Ready? Because it gets harder
Not only do we need to start replacing all of the existing fossil fuel mix with clean energy… we have to give access to all the newcomers. The billion people who still rely on burning wood? They’re going to need their lights switched on. And then there’s the billions of people who are going to be added to the global population this century. Global energy consumption is going to climb by 30% over the next few decades as developing countries get richer. According to the IEA, China alone needs to add the equivalent of the entire United States’ power sector by 2040.
Starting to get the picture? It’s pretty sobering. The sheer enormity of the world’s energy demand is hard to get your head around. To cut emissions fast enough and keep up with growth, we’re going to need to accelerate the energy transition to a whole new level. We have to add billions to the grid and provide more energy for the new middle class in Asia and Africa and we have to do it while replacing all the old infrastructure that we’ve already got. And all of it needs to happen in the next 30 years.
This is the largest technological challenge in our species’ history
Developed nations are going to have to start racing toward net-zero emissions by mid-century and developing nations will need to find a very different path to prosperity than the one travelled by the countries before them. By 2020, global spending on zero emissions technologies needs to be doubled, and the cost of renewable energy must beat out coal in every single energy market. The majority of the world’s countries must have fully committed to electrifying their transportation systems, and new transmission infrastructure needs to start being built on a mass scale. All of the Fortune 500 companies that represent heavy industries must have committed to the Paris targets, and their emissions-reduction plans must be in effect.
By 2050, emissions need to drop to 30% of what they’re at today. That means that nearly 95% of electricity must be clean, and 7 out of every 10 new cars will need to be electric, compared with 1 in 100 today. We’re going to have to build 40 to 50 terawatts of clean energy capacity during that time too, an almost unimaginably large amount of infrastructure. Yes, renewables are now a multi-billion dollar industry. Sure, we’ve seen an extraordinary increase in the amount of clean energy being installed around the world in the last few years. But it’s still just a drop in the ocean. That’s why people like Rex Tillerson (remember that guy?) say, “It takes 100 years or more for some new breakthrough in energy to become the dominant source.”
Fortunately for us, Mr Tillerson has forgotten that history doesn’t repeat itself. It rhymes.
Constantly we are collapsing. Constantly we are fixing.
The Trillion Dollar Time Trial
Previous energy transitions happened because newer fuels and machines were better, cheaper and more abundant.
This one is different.
It’s being driven not just by the market, but by an urgent and growing awareness of the needs facing the global community: combating the worst effects of climate change, providing universal energy access, and reducing air pollution from energy. For the first time ever we’re going to try and deliberately make an energy transition happen, and perhaps more importantly, do it on a global scale.
The way I like to think of this is that the human species (that’s us) is a cyclist.
Let’s call our cyclist Homo Electric.
Now imagine that we’re participating in a time trial, just like the ones they do on the Tour de France. Except this time it’s the most important race of all time: The Trillion Dollar Time Trial.
The starting gun went off in Paris in 2015, when the world came together to sign the largest international accord ever created, agreeing to limit global warming to 2°C. The challenge is to make the clean energy transition happen by the year 2050. The clock is ticking.
The good news is that we’re cycling with the best piece of kit money can buy: the Clean Energy Bicycle. It’s the most amazing machine ever created. Not only does it allow us to harness the power of the wind, the sun, the tides, and our molten core, it gets better over time. The faster we go, the whizzier the bike gets.
We’re also the crowd favourite. On every corner of the planet, there are billions lining the roads, cheering us on, the General Public (give ’em a wave). The closer we get to the finish line, the louder they’ll be cheering.
The bad news is that Homo Electric is going to be getting heavier as we go. Population growth is going to add billions of new humans to our weight. To make matters worse, we are racing against the most powerful industry that has ever existed: the Fossil Fuel Dinosaurs. At stake is their entire existence. There’s no depth to which they’re unwilling to sink. They’re going to do everything they can to slow Homo Electric down. They’re going to be chucking thumbtacks into the road, setting up roadblocks and bribing traffic officials at every step of the way.
The wildcard is Governments. Some of them are helping out with a well planned doping regime, with research into newer and better bicycles, and are courageous enough to stop the Fossil Fuel Dinosaurs from interfering. Most however, are still standing idly by, eating popcorn and watching on the telly. And a few are actively working with the bad guys to sabotage the race.
So how are we doing?
Well, the first few kilometres have been pretty ropy. Despite our best intentions, Homo Electric has been pedalling squares. It’s probably time we remind ourselves again about what’s really at stake here.
Scared means we want to live.
Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Welcome to Hothouse Earth
We’ve just had a crazy summer in the northern hemisphere of the planet. Los Angeles, Marrakech, Montreal, Denver, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Glasgow, Belfast and Tbilisi have all recorded their highest ever temperatures. In Siberia, for the first time in memory, the ground that insulates some of the deepest layers of permafrost did not freeze, and in the Arctic, some of the oldest and thickest sea ice has started to break up, a phenomenon that has never been recorded before. In the past two months new temperature records have been set in Algeria (51.3℃), South Korea (40.7°C), Norway (33.5°C) and Japan (41.1℃). Oman has recorded the hottest ever global overnight minimum (42.6℃), and California’s Death Valley set the record for the hottest month ever recorded on Earth, with an average temperature of (42.2℃).
A heatwave has gripped Japan, North Korea and South Korea, leaving hundreds of people dead, and in California and Greece, deadly fires have ripped across the land, leaving tens of thousands homeless. Sweden experienced its hottest July in 260 years and its worst drought in 74 years. Northern Ireland and Wales recorded their hottest June temperatures ever. The first half of summer in the United Kingdom was the driest on record, many people comparing it to the heatwave of 1976 — a weather event so intense it’s been partly held responsible for the birth of punk.
They’re not even in the same league.
The planet has warmed by 1℃ since the Industrial Revolution, and the bill is starting to come due. Average carbon dioxide concentration is now at its highest level ever recorded, and higher than at any point in the past 800,000 years. The last three years are the three hottest in recorded history, and 2018 is on track to make it four out of four. It’s not just polar bears or storm surges on tiny islands any more; changing weather patterns are now on the doorsteps of everyday Americans, Europeans and Asians. That’s the thing about climate change. As Alex Steffen says, “The science always wins. You can fool yourself, you can fool other people for a while, but you can’t fool Mother Nature.”
None of this is inevitable. It’s the result of choices made by people who are still alive. Between 1990 and now, half of all greenhouse gases humanity has ever emitted were poured into the sky. Go back to the end of World War Two and the percentage rises past 85%. The energy, transportation, manufacturing and agricultural systems we’ve built are unsustainable by design. If we don’t change them, if we don’t make the fourth energy transition happen orders of magnitude faster than the previous three, we won’t just heat the world up another few degrees. We’ll push the climate system past a critical threshold, at which point the entire thing spins out of control.
According to Johan Rockstrom, the executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, these climate thresholds, these tipping points, act like a row of dominoes, “Once one is pushed over, it pushes Earth towards another.” Temperature rises past a certain level, say 2℃ or 3℃, could set off a cascade of catastrophe, with melting permafrost releasing methane to ratchet temperatures up even further, enough to kill off the Amazon and the boreal forests, melt the polar ice sheets and so on, in a chain reaction that pushes Earth into a terrifying hothouse state from which there is no return.
The stakes for the Trillion Dollar Time Trial in other words, could not be higher. The performance of Homo Electric over the next three decades will determine whether our planet remains hospitable to human life or slides down an irreversible path to climate chaos. And the longer we delay, the harder it gets to make it to the finish line in time. The whole thing is going to be done and dusted within our lifetimes, and we are all going to be living with the consequences, one way or another.
To oppose something is to maintain it. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Soliloquies in Mishnory
The Race Strategy
A professional cyclist doesn’t enter a race without a strategy. The Trillion Dollar Time Trial is no different. Here’s the plan:
A clean energy transition is about more than just switching over to renewables. It’s a fundamental rearrangement of the way energy is harvested, distributed and used. It’s not just replacing creaking coal plants with shiny solar panels or swapping car engines for batteries. It’s about restructuring our entire energy infrastructure, moving away from an old centralised system, characterised by predictable flows and powered by dense fuels that are easy to transport, to a decentralised one with turbines, panels, batteries and millions of smaller, smarter connections that gather energy from diffuse, less predictable sources, and concentrate it inwards. It’s not a fuel swap. It’s a whole new way of organising the built environment, the most basic structures of modern life.
That means that electricity is going to get more important.
Right now, the energy system is roughly divided into big chunks — electricity, buildings, transport, and industrial. While there are a few interconnections and overlaps, they mostly exist as separate silos. The global supply chain for the petrol you put in your car, for example, doesn’t really have much to do with the gas networks you use to heat your house, or the coal shipments that power your electricity grid.
As Homo Electric accelerates into the race, the plan is to stop setting hydrocarbons on fire, and start moving around more electrons. We stop using diesel generators, and switch to solar and storage. Instead of powering our cars by blowing up black dinosaur juice, we give them batteries and charge those with energy from a clean grid. We change our heating systems, moving from gas furnaces to electric heat pumps. As Emma Pinchbeck, the executive director of Renewables UK puts it, “Pressure for decarbonisation collapses the energy silos, and expands the range of stuff that we use electricity for.”
Yes, there are disagreements about exactly what mix of those sources will be needed, what mix of centralised versus distributed resources and what mix of supply-side versus demand-side solutions. However, there’s broad consensus that pathways to fully clean electricity exist. And the cleaner your electricity grid gets, the cleaner all the devices that connect to it get too. Right now, around 26% of final energy usage is electricity; according to some studies, that proportion is going to more than double by 2050. That still leaves the remaining stuff that’s harder to electrify, like air travel and steel furnaces, but the idea is that we leave that for the second part of the race.
For the first half, the strategy is simple:
STEP 1. Clean up electricity
STEP 2. Electrify everything
Or, as I like to call it, #MEGA (Make Electricity Great Again)