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Tom Murphy: Time to Be Honest With Ourselves About Our Looming Energy Risks

user profile picture Adam Taggart May 11, 2012
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I want to take the lowest risk approach to the future. So much is riding on it.

Personally, I feel that the scientific progress we have made over the last few hundred years is astounding. I don’t want to lose that. I think that is a gift to the future, and I don’t want to run the risk of a collapse that could destroy all that we have.

Even if you think the collapse is a low probability let’s say it's 5%, 10% probability it is an asymmetric risk. The downsides of not treating it seriously are huge.

I mean, you buy fire insurance for your house, even if it is a 0.1% probability that your house will burn down in your lifetime. But the consequences are so negative that you do it. And when you are talking about the accomplishments of all civilization, you need to buy insurance and treat that with the respect it deserves.

Tom Murphy, associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, has mapped the distance between the earth and the moon to within a millimeter and built instruments to study colliding galaxies. We feel comfortable saying he's a pretty smart guy as well as an optimist about what human ingenuity and technology can do for the advancement of society.

In 2004, he became intrigued with the global energy situation and brought his disciplined, empirical approach to bear. He set out to determine which new sources were going to pick up the slack once fossil fuels began becoming scarce. Looking back, he says the theme underlying his findings was "disappointment."

The math showed him that there simply will not be nearly enough BTU yield from alternative energy sources to meet the rising global demand. In fact, if anything, his investigation made him realize how few minds today are truly aware of the extraordinary energy throughput we are getting from fossil fuels.

The gap currently is huge. Almost all of our energy comes from fossil fuels.

But the optimist would say, that is just because it is easier and cheaper right now. We could easily transition to solar, for instance, which is super-abundant in its delivery of energy to the planet’s surface. The numbers there are quite impressively large. Wind, less so. That is a secondary manifestation of solar power. Waves are a tertiary manifestation of solar power through wind. So as you cascade down, you get less and less energy in hydroelectric, for instance.

So all of the neat and fancy ideas that we hear about are maybe clever, but just don’t stack up in terms of abundance. There are some that are truly abundant in nature, solar being one of them. But there is a real disconnect between what solar offers and what we are trying to replace. It turns out we don’t have much trouble generating electricity. There are loads of ways to make electricity.

What we are really missing is the liquid fuel. It is very difficult to transition from solar, nuclear, whatever you want, into the liquid fuels that allow us to move ourselves around, it is very important in agriculture. And that is where the pinch point will come. There are certainly sources that can be labeled as abundant. The gulf is really one of practicality more than one of the sheer energy scale. That is a little bit harder to quantify. So you can quantify the abundance and how much you might get out of a certain source. But it is very hard to quantify things like public acceptance or how difficult it will be to pull off things like intermittency, how to deal with the storage, practical storage solutions. All of these are very tricky.

And one perspective is that we have known since 1970 roughly that fossil-fuel peak was coming at some point. We knew that we needed alternatives in the 1970s. We had lots of discussion of alternative energies. Forty years later, we really aren’t that much further along. We sort of don’t have any new players, and it feels to me that if the liquid fuels decline in the next few decades, which I think is likely, we have already got the players on the stage right now.

And so all of these technologies take a long time to develop and mature and scale. Even though I'm a fan of technology, I am not a fan of gambling on the sense that an entirely new source will come along that is as yet unappreciated. The fact is that our alternatives are deficient in various ways compared to the ease and abundance and convenience of the fossil fuels.

He likens the earth to a battery having spent eons soaking up solar energy and storing it (in the form of hydrocarbons). Humans finally figured out how to tap into this battery ~200 years ago, and we've been drawing it down so quickly and violently within such a short period of time (an instant, geologically-speaking) that it's akin to a short circuit. The big question is: What will life be like once this once-in-a-species planetary gift is gone? 

Returning to the math: Anything whose growth is dependent on something that can't grow will stop growing. Like our global economy. The way it is set up today, it must grow in order to function properly. But that growth is dependent upon ever more energy output each year to power it.

We must either choose to transition now to new economic models that do not depend on growth, or be forced to do so later, once our current model stops working. Either way, our relentless demand for growth will end.

And so to me, that is, my motivation is to say, not only can we get off of this ridiculous treadmill we are on which has no future, by the way; it's unsustainable and step into this new life, but it is actually something we want to do and it is time to do that. We either do it or we don’t. I am a scientist at heart. Trained in the physical sciences, natural sciences, and I just know that limits are limits. And we will, like any organism, discover our limits. And we will either discover that on our own terms or on some other terms.

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