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Fossil fuels cannot be replaced by alternative energy systems

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

An alarming new study jointly released by two prominent California based think tanks, concludes that unrelenting energy limits, even among alternative energy systems, will make it impossible for the industrial system to continue operating at its present scale, beyond the next few decades. The report finds that the current race by industries and governments to develop sustainable energy technologies that can replace ecologically harmful and depleting fossil fuel and nuclear technologies, will not prove sufficient, and that this will require substantial adjustments in many operating assumptions of modern society.

Life-cycle picture
The report analyses 18 of the most viable power production alternatives to identify their ‘net energy’ ratios (the amount of energy that must be invested in them vs. the amount of energy they will be able to produce) as well as their environmental, social and geopolitical impacts. It also considers such important factors as resource and materials supply, resource location, transportation, and others to create a full life cycle picture of each technology’s impacts.

Main conclusions 
  • As the world’s higher-quality fossil fuel reserves rapidly deplete, no combination of alternative energy sources is likely to be sufficient to sustain industrial society at its present scale. Energy supply problems, perhaps severe, are likely during the coming decade.   
  • Fossil fuels and high quality uranium ores are depleting rapidly; world oil production may already have peaked. Present expectations for new technological replacements are probably overly optimistic with regard to ecological sustainability, potential scale of development, and levels of ‘net energy’ gain.
  • Certain energy production systems suffer from low or negative net energy gain; these include most biofuels, hydrogen systems, oil shale, tar sands, and biomass, some of which also present unacceptable environmental.
  • Limits to future energy supply are more dramatic if environmental impacts are considered including accelerating climate change, fresh water scarcity, destruction of food-growing lands, and shortages of minerals.
  • Given the above, it is necessary to prepare societies for dramatic shifts in consumption and lifestyle expectations. It will also be necessary to promote a new ethic of conservation throughout the industrial world. A sharp reversal of today’s globalisation of commercial activity must be anticipated and facilitated, and government leaders must encourage a rapid evolution toward economies based on localism.
  • The emphasis by policy makers on growth as the central goal and measure of modern economies is no longer practical or viable, as growth will be limited by both energy shortages and by society’s inability to continue venting energy production and consumption wastes (principally, CO2) into the environment without catastrophic consequences.
  • With energy supplies diminishing, raw material resources similarly depleting, and crises such as climate change rapidly advancing; the long-term goal of satisfying the needs of the world’s poorest peoples, in their attempts to recover from centuries of colonialism, resource exploitation, and removal from traditional lands and economies, becomes ever more daunting.
  • These factors must all be taken very seriously by policy makers in all countries, that have thus far failed to be realistic about what will be required to avoid future social and economic breakdowns and geopolitical crises, as countries and peoples compete for dwindling resources.    

The study was carried out by the Post Carbon Institute, a think tank that works toward a transition to a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable world.

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