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Global energy: the latest infatuations

When potential energy consumption increases needed by low-income countries are considered together with an obvious lack of any meaningful progress in reducing the emissions through internationally binding agreements (see the sequential failures of Kyoto, Bali, Copenhagen and Cancún gatherings), it is hardly surprising that technical fixes appear to be, more than ever, the best solution to minimize future rise of tropospheric temperatures.

Unfortunately, this has led to exaggerated expectations rather than to realistic appraisals. This is true even after excluding what might be termed zealous sectarian infatuations with those renewable conversions whose limited, exceedingly diffuse or hard-to-capture resources (be they jet stream winds or ocean waves) prevent them from becoming meaningful economic players during the next few decades. Promoters of new renewable energy conversions that now appear to have the best prospects to make significant near-term contributions – modern biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel) and wind and solar electricity generation – do not give sufficient weight to important physical realities concerning the global shift away from fossil fuels: to the scale of the required transformation, to its likely duration, to the unit capacities of new convertors, and to enormous infrastructural requirements resulting from the inherently low power densities with which we can harvest renewable energy flows and to their immutable stochasticity. …

These are uncertain times, economically, politically and socially. The need for new departures seems obvious, but effective actions have failed to keep pace with the urgency of needed changes – particularly so in affluent democracies of North America, Europe and Japan as they contemplate their overdrawn accounts, faltering economies, aging populations and ebbing global influence. In this sense the search for new energy modalities is part of a much broader change whose outcome will determine the fortunes of the world’s leading economies and of the entire global civilization for generations to come. None of us can foresee the eventual contours of new energy arrangements—but could the world’s richest countries go wrong by striving for moderation of their energy use?

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