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Two Pathways to a Solar Civilization

Are They Compatible and Can They Stop Global Warming in Time?

Herman Greene

This issue of The New Ecozoic Reader presents two very different pathways for the transition to 100% renewable energy. Are they compatible? Can they stop global warming in time? This issue ends with a position paper by CES that addresses the compatibility of the two pathways.

Alan Reed’s Article on 100% Renewable Energy

The first is by Alan Reed and is entitled “Building a 100% Renewable Energy System Globally: The Technological Imperative for Securing A Liveable [Sic] Future.” Reed gives a thorough review of current proposals for how to move from a high carbon, fossil fuel-based energy system to a low carbon, renewable energy-based energy system. While allowing for some energy to be supplied by biofuels, geothermal, hydro, and nuclear, he argues that wind and especially solar photovoltaics (PV) will be the most important and best sources of energy in the future. Recognizing that there are questions about how these intermittent power sources can provide the reliable and plentiful energy afforded by fossil fuels, he describes how solar and wind combined with energy storage and also liquid fuels and hydrogen produced using wind and solar can replace fossil fuels worldwide. Concerning whether this can be done quickly so as to avert dangerous levels of global warming, he gives examples of how this is already occurring in certain areas, notably in Denmark and Germany. He writes it is technologically feasible to achieve rapid reductions of carbon emissions by implementing renewable energy, though even with these reductions, global warming will likely still exceed 2.0oC because of the high amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. Reducing those gases would require direct air capture (DAC), which involves processing massive amounts of air and filtering out greenhouse gases, and nature-based solutions, which involves planting trees and rewilding to increase terrestrial stores of atmospheric greenhouse gases.

Reed at the outset in his article calls for reductions in emission through increases in energy efficiency (e.g., an LED light bulb using far less energy than an incandescent light bulb can produce the same amount of illumination as an incandescent light bulb) and energy sufficiency (reductions in demand for energy due to lower consumption of energy while still providing sufficient energy for human wellbeing). At various places in his article, he calls out approaches to emissions reduction that would be less effective than focusing on solar and wind combined with storage and liquid and hydrogen fuels produced by solar and wind. And at the end of his article Reed addresses those who are critical of or skeptical about 100% renewable energy. Such people include those who doubt that variable wind and solar could consistently provide needed energy; those who underestimate the capacity to rapidly roll out renewable energy due to cost, complexity, or the magnitude of the task; those who believe that renewable energy even if fully built out could not provide the amount and quality of energy afforded by fossil fuels and hence continued reliance on fossil fuels with carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) and nuclear fission will be needed; and those who believe, on the one hand, that a radical—probably impossible—change of global lifestyles is needed to reduce energy demands, or, on the other hand, a different technological breakthrough is needed or will occur—such as hydrogen fusion—before the transition from fossil fuels can be completed.

Reed’s reply to these critics and skeptics is “What are you thinking? There is no realistic alternative to a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy to address the climate emergency!” Here I quote from his article:

  • For those who are against 100% RE, what is the alternative? Continuing to burn fossil fuels is not an alternative; there are enough remaining reserves to secure for humanity an un-liveable future with a hot-house Earth that will destroy all human civilization.

He concludes his article by giving three keys “for achieving 100% RE to fully decarbonize our global energy system”:

  1. Build 100% RE: Focus on building 100% RE systems everywhere globally, including the coupling of the energy sectors power, heat, transport and industry via Power-to-X and other measures. Do not use CCS, BECCS or CDR as a fig leaf to continue fossil fuel combustion.
  2. Collaborate intensively: Stimulate public participation across society to build 100% RE.
  3. Reduce energy consumption: Implement energy efficiency and energy sufficiency measures.

Tim Crownshaw’s Article on “Return to Solar Civilization”

Tim Crownshaw’s article entitled “The Return to Solar Civilizations: Narrative, Agency, and Accepting Limits,” begins with an acknowledgment that the fossil fuel energy system is leading us to the edge of an abyss. Then he makes these startling observations about our current civilization: (1) It is based on a modern technological-industrial culture, (2) it has developed in and relied upon the stable interglacial climate of the Holocene epoch, (3) fossil fuels are indispensable to it, (4) high quality fossil fuels are rapidly depleting, and (5) “frayed communities and ecosystems around the world [are being] impacted by unprecedented stressors and rates of change.” He concludes his opening paragraph with this statement: “If allowed to proceed unchecked, these nonlinear and accumulating harms threaten to overwhelm us.” And he begins his next paragraph by saying, “We will, by definition, eventually cease to rely on nonrenewable energy.”

Both Reed and Crownshaw understand that we must move to 100% renewable energy. Reed emphasizes the technological path to 100% renewable energy. Crownshaw emphasizes “calling modernity itself into question,” in other words changing culture and ways of life in such a way that fossil fuels are no longer indispensable and energy equivalent to current fossil fuel energy is no longer required. Many will find disappointing or even pernicious his conclusions that the needed contraction in demand “will likely be unplanned, initiated instead by biophysical processes,” and that “given the present extent of global ecological overshoot, we cannot avoid hitting the wall. Disruptive socio-ecological phase change is now likely unavoidable.”

Crownshaw gives numerous reasons why the transition to 100% renewable energy cannot happen quickly and why this will destabilize ecosystems and human societies.

Key to understanding his analysis is his statement that

  • the transformation of the global energy system is not simply a technical, economic, or governance challenge within a static backdrop, but rather a complex, physically bounded, path-dependent, socio-metabolic process which will necessarily transform the basic configuration of high-energy societies. Just as biological organisms require continuous flows of energy and nutrients, socio­cultural structures too have metabolic needs. As the quality and/or quantity of available energy supplies change, societies will reorganize, and dominant patterns will give way to new arrangements.

“Physically bounded” concerns the quantity and quality of resources and sources that can be marshalled to provide energy, such as the availability of fuels and of materials needed for the energy system. “Path-dependent” means that the harvesting, transporting, conversion, and final use of different types of energy follow different paths. Take natural gas in the United States: According to the US Energy Information  Agency, the pipeline network for natural gas “has about 3 million miles of mainline and other pipelines that link natural gas production areas and storage facilities with consumers.” This is a good network for delivering natural gas but is largely useless for delivering the electricity involved in a 100% renewable energy system. “Socio-metabolic” means that societies take certain forms depending on the amount and type of energy available to the societies—in other words social structures feed off of, are fed by, and are shaped by their respective energy systems. All of this means there is no such thing as a plug-and-play renewable energy system. Changing the current fossil fuel-based energy system changes everything and requires changes in everything. These changes are only partly technological—they may not even be largely technological. As Reed points out in his article, there are at least theoretical technological solutions for all aspects of deploying a 100% renewable energy system; the limiting non-technological factors, however, are legion.

Crownshaw does not offer his prognosis as definitive, and neither does Reed. The first section following the introduction in Crownshaw’s paper is about how we can never comprehend all the aspects and dynamics of what is happening with Earth’s climate and biosystems and human societies and energy systems, so we make up stories. We may go to great lengths to base our stories on “the facts,” but a quick review of even the scientific aspects of the energy transition and climate shows the facts (and the absence of facts) describing our situation are variable and offer the possibility of creating many different stories, especially given that the stories involve projected outcomes of “the facts.”

The CES Position Paper

Are Reed’s and Crownshaw’s pathways to a solar civilization—we highly recommend you read them both—compatible, and can either or both stop climate change in time? Let us note that neither author states that global warming will not exceed 2.0oC. So neither offers a prospect for stopping global warming in time. Reed seems, however, to imply that if there is a 100% renewable energy transition, then possibly DAC and climate-based solutions could bring down accumulated atmospheric greenhouse emissions to an acceptable level within this century. Crownshaw seems to envision a drop in aggregate demand for energy resulting from biophysical limitations on human energy consumption and a diminishment of societal complexity that will in time bring down cumulative atmospheric greenhouse emissions and global temperature in centuries to come.

The difference in prospects is significant but aside from this difference, the pathways for movement to solar civilization in both articles are compatible. Both affirm the need to move to 100% renewable energy largely reliant on solar and wind, and both affirm the need for demand reduction through energy efficiency and sufficiency. While Crownshaw explicitly calls for cultural change, Reed implicitly does so as well.

In the CES position paper, we of CES have done our best to tell our story of what the future holds for ecozoans and for humans and other species as well. Our story shares with Crownshaw’s article a focus on the disruptive sides of the energy transition and increases in global temperature. Our story shares with Reed’s article the need to work on the supply side of the energy transition and deploy solar and wind as the mainstays of our future energy system in order to provide energy sufficiency to humans and a measure of modern technological capabilities beneficial to human well-being, such as electric lighting, heat, convivial transportation systems, flows of information, medical care, cultural celebrations, and more.

It will not be easy.