Substituting Renewables - a Scenario about Dinner

Susan Krumdieck's picture

The 100% Renewable Future Story


There is a popular idea that we can substitute renewables for fossil fuels. Someone should ask an engineer.



Scenario 1 - Substitution.


If you try to talk about the oil world running on renewables - then you have collapse. It doesn't work. There isn't enough energy to make everything and to move everything, so you are doing a failure analysis. That might be of merit in your framing of the "problem".  Just how big is the gap?  Just how much would not get done?  Well, the answer is about 90% of everything we now have, do, use, etc would not work if you just took the current oil/coal/gas system and said "substitute" with every scrap of renewable energy we can get at the same price (or even 10x the price) as fossil.  So, the failure analysis would be about what the 10% of activities and goods WOULD be available using an essentiality analysis, or more probable would be a 1% of people are still living like oil people because they have the means to commandeer the renewable resources for electricity and liquid fuels and the rest of you are out of luck. Kind of like most 3rd world countries, so not a surprise. "We could substitute solar and wind"  means a few people can continue the oil lifestyle and we won't talk about the rest of you who have had to abandon the cities that don't work anymore (the Zombie Apocalypse?).  However - without oil to fuel an oil world, I don't like your chances of running a civilization that can produce solar PV panels. You are trying to find food for your family. There is no food on the supermarket shelves. There is no food in the city. Your water bucket is almost empty. You heard that in the walled and highly secured "RE District" they are having a big party and there will be a show broadcast on the big screen at the corner of main and grand. You might as well go down there, as there isn't any power in your house, and maybe someone will be hiring people as guards... Or maybe when they bring the scraps out from the RE district you can get some, but it's usually quite a fight...  Maybe you should try to get your family out of the city, you've heard there is food out in the countryside, but there are also rumors about the country people shooting city people that are found wandering around or taking food from the fields.

Scenario 2 - Transition.


Knowing the forward operating environment - we think forward like problem-solvers and we change all of our systems, manufacturing, services, buildings, production, transportation... to WORK on 10% of the fossil energy we now use.  We also have a rule that people will use whatever local resources are available in the best way we know. Now we are looking at a CHANGE analysis.


In this scenario we are looking at how things have changed - not how they have failed. It's dinner time - the first think you would notice if you dimension-shifted into this scenario - would probably be that there are no packets, packages, boxes that are opened in the making of dinner. You notice the smells of dinner from the neighbourhood - and pretty much everyone is having cauliflower of some variety tonight. When you went past the greengrocer on your walk home yesterday afternoon, there was a wagon full of beautiful cauliflower that came into the city on the train and was delivered around the city on the tram system because there was a good windy day yesterday. Your favourite recipe for cauliflower season is now ready for dinner - cheese and cream from the dairy (a shop that sells poultry and dairy products), pasta from the bakery (black-water digester gas ovens), cauliflower and garlic from the green-grocer and rosemary from your herb garden went into the crock pot this morning, you put the pot in the solar cooker out on the balcony (picture a BBQ) and now as you get home from work you can smell that the dish is perfectly cooked and ready to put with a green salad from your little glass house, and a glass of water from the ceramic filter jug and you are set. There is a sing-along down at the pub tonight so you'd better get the table set before it gets dark. It's been a pretty hot day so you need to open all the windows and the ventilation shaft so that the flat can cool down over the night. You roll back the shades that have kept the sun out of the windows and pump some water from the rain barrel to water the herbs. You check the led lights on the wall in the kitchen - it is about time that the small factories are shutting down for the day before the daylight goes- and the generators will be ready to roll over for lighting. The LED is still red, but it's plenty light enough in your kitchen to finish making dinner thanks to your solar tube lights that collect the low afternoon light very efficiently. You send one of the kids down to the grandparents rooms to let them know dinner is ready. You look at the indicator for the building solar hot water system and it looks like there is plenty of hot water - good everyone can have a quick wash tonight.

Do you see the profound difference?  We have to be very careful of what the story is - or tell both stories. Scenario 1 is a nightmare because you have a system that doesn't work. Scenario 2 doesn't work anything like the oil system, it uses only a tiny fraction of the energy, but it WORKS.