> Areas of Concern > Energy > Energy and Scale > Scale Relevant Solutions
 Under Construction

What Scale Relevant Solutions to the Energy Problem are Required?

Understanding the Problem from a Scale Perspective
Merits of a Scale Perspective for Energy
Energy is essential to civilization; a scale perspective requires us to think about how to manage our energy production and use so that very long term supply can be sustained, and that energy use does not degrade any critical ecosystem services (see Understanding Scale). A scale perspective also requires us to ask how much energy use is possible without disrupting critical ecosystem functions (see Critical Natural Capital).

The concerns regarding energy use from a sustainable scale perspective are as follows:

A sustainable scale perspective forces us to consider that the brief age of fossil fuels (from about 1850 to perhaps 2050) is providing us with a unique energy source that likely cannot be duplicated. The abundance and high energy return on energy invested (EROI) of fossil fuels (oil in particular) allowed us to create a global civilization not only built on large amounts of energy, but one which requires us to continually rely on ever increasing supplies of energy to simply maintain. We are soon to experience a decline in these non-renewable resources, and there are no substitutes readily available to completely fill the gap.
Renewable sources all have an EROI considerably lower than oil, meaning that more energy input will be required to generate the same energy output. This will be the first time in human history that a major energy transition will involve a decrease in EROI. There is a high probability that we will have to adjust our civilization’s energy demands to accept a decline in energy availability.  This is considered such an unpalatable option that it is receiving little serious consideration.  However, reducing the amount of energy we use may be necessary for achieving sustainable scale.

Determining Optimal Scale for Energy Use

What is Optimal Scale for Energy Use?
Sustainable scale as a concept tells us what relationship is possible between economic throughput and critical ecosystem functioning, based on basic laws of science.  Optimal scale  (see Sustainable Scale) identifies the level of economic throughput that is most desirable from a socio-political perspective: it is that level of economic throughout, within the sustainable range, where total benefits exceed total costs. In the case of energy use, it is clear that our reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels and nuclear energy are unsustainable from both source and sink perspectives (see Scale Problem). It is not possible to continue this reliance on fossil fuels, and it may not be possible to continue our reliance on ever increasing amounts of energy from non-renewable sources. Thinking about sustainable scale forces us to think not only about what level of energy use is possible, but also what level is desirable.

From a policy perspective it is desirable to avoid being within the unsustainable range of economic throughput (see Sustainable Or Unsustainable); targeting a level that is just on the borderline between sustainable and unsustainable scale therefore has some risks associated with it. For example, reliance on photovoltaic cells (which life cycle analysis indicates have an ecological footprint equivalent to that of fossil fuels)1 could degrade a variety of critical ecosystem functions.
Even if renewable sources could meet growing energy demands, large supplies of cheap energies would only encourage more material throughput, thereby threatening critical ecosystem functions.  Such continued increases in throughput would have significant negative impacts on ecosystem functioning regardless of the source of energy used. Thus from a risk management perspective, it would be prudent to target a level of energy use somewhat below the level we suspect to be maximum sustainable scale.
Judging what level of risk management is acceptable is a socio-political decision.  Determining what constitutes sustainable scale is based on science; determining optimal scale is based on human concerns regarding safety, values regarding justice for current and future generations of humans and other living creatures, and the level of material well-being we desire (see Sustainable Scale). Inevitably, there are differing views on these issues, as well as different approaches to how such decisions should be made.2 A scale perspective emphasizes that however these socio-political differences are resolved they must remain within a sustainable range, that is, within a level of economic throughput that does not exceed the ecosystem’s capacity to continue providing critical life-support services for human well being.

A Key Role for Conservation
Our technologies and practices are very wasteful of energy. Considerable reductions in energy consumption are possible while meeting human needs. Conservation comes from either reduction in demand or increased efficiencies. While increased efficiencies are important, they often lead to an overall increase in energy use (the increased efficiencies make the energy cheaper, encouraging greater use. See Jevons Paradox [glossary]) Overall energy use is highly correlated with material throughput, and therefore with impacts on ecosystems.  As we learn to achieve sustainable levels of throughput, we will learn to live comfortably with less energy. So in addition to encouraging increased efficiencies in our technologies, we also need to explore overall reduction in energy demand to achieve sustainable scale. This will be a major challenge given our consumptive lifestyles, and a growing global population.

A Hopeful Note?
Energy use is highly connected to GDP and quality of life, but the relationship is not straightforward. Quality of life and energy use are highly correlated up to a certain point (approximately 50-70 GJ/capita). Nations with this much energy use enjoy fairly high levels of life expectancy, food availability, educational opportunities, health standards, and political freedoms. Further, but diminishing, returns in these well-being indicators occur up to approximately 110 GJ/capita3. Energy consumption beyond this level is simply wasteful, adding little or nothing to human well-being. Currently, many affluent nations consume energy in excess of 325 GJ/capita. From a scale perspective the issue is not just per capita energy consumption, but the absolute quantity (and quality) of energy consumed globally.

At the end of the 20th century the global average energy consumption was approximately 60 GJ per capita. But distribution is a major problem with over 2 billion people still without electricity. A major social challenge in the current century will be whether the inevitable transition to renewable sources can also provide sufficient energy for the well-being of every person on the planet, and still remain within a sustainable scale.

Scale Relevant Energy Policies

Targeting Optimal Scale for Energy: International Agreement Needed

Global Energy Policy Non-Existent
There is currently no binding international agreement regarding the global energy supply, where it will come from in the future, how much will be needed for what priorities, or how the supply will be fairly distributed.  In contrast to a global solution to these technical and social challenges, individual nations are now competing in pursuit of their own interests in securing energy supplies, often without regard to the impact of their energy use on critical ecosystem functions. Global energy policy is essentially being left to a combination of market solutions and political, including military4, power. Implementation of the Kyoto Protocol will require at least the beginning of a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources (see Additional Solutions).  All of the scale relevant policy recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a sustainable scale are also relevant to encouraging a transition to renewable energy resources.  However, even these recommendations do not go far enough in considering what the optimal scale should be for global energy use.   
Understanding Only Part of the Problem?
There are a number of global energy reviews which acknowledge that continued reliance on fossil fuels poses a serious threat to global climate stability, and that a transition to renewable energy sources is essential (e.g. UNDP’s “World Energy Assessment”; IEA’s  “Key World Energy Statistics”; New Economics Foundation’s “Price of Power”).  These reports also acknowledge the uneven distribution of energy, and the need for the poor to have greater access.  Despite these acknowledgements, there are several shortfalls with these reports:
  • The transition to renewables is voluntary and there are no clear commitments to achieving certain targets by specific dates
  • There is not a global plan to redistribute energy resources to meet basic human needs
  • There is an expectation that energy supplies can continue to grow at 1.5 to 2 % annually over the next several decades
  • There is an optimism that technology will provide both new energy sources and significantly increased efficiencies for known technologies
  • There is no consideration that cheap and abundant energy supplies could pose a potential threat to the amount of material throughput in the global economy in terms of its impact on global life support systems essential for human well being.
These reports appear to miss half the problem concerning sustainable scale for energy use.  They reflect a mild sense of urgency in mitigating the current impact of fossil fuel use, and in making a transition to renewables. There is acknowledgement that the poor need greater access to energy.  However, there is no attept to achieve a binding agreement to accomplish any of these goals, nor is there an appreciation of the lower EROI of renewable energy supplies (compared to fossil fuels) and the implications of this decline. In addition, there is no questioning of whether continued growth in energy supplies is actually possible or even desirable.  With peak production of both oil and gas likely to occur over the next decade or two, the long time lines to develop and build reliable alternative infrastructures, and the huge capital costs involved, these issues deserve greater attention.  The longer the world waits for a global energy agreement, the fewer the options and the more costly their eventual implementation.
Targeting Optimal Scale for Energy Use: Key Elements of a Solution
A UN sponsored international agreement to determine sustainable scale for global energy production and use is urgently needed.  Optimal scale for energy use requires an international agreement which addresses at least the following:
  • Determination of the amount of energy required to provide for the basic needs of everyone without disrupting critical life support ecosystems
  • A plan to adjust the global demand for energy to that sustainable level
  • A time table for transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources as quickly as technically possible, with adequate support for developing countries
  • A plan to conduct large scale tests for a variety of renewable energy systems
  • Studies to understand the full life cycle impacts of renewable energy systems, with special attention to their impact on critical ecosystem functions
  • Plans to ensure the poor have access to an energy supply commensurate with a comfortable quality of life.
Transition to Renewables

Time Table to Eliminate Fossil Fuels
Many analysts agree that a transition from non-renewable to renewable energy sources is inevitable.  But there is no agreement as to how fast this should occur; whether we should wait until existing reserves of fossil fuels are exhausted; or whether, in anticipation of their depletion, and in light of the ecosystem degradation involved in their continued use, the transition should occur as quickly as possible.  
A sustainable scale perspective puts a premium on maintaining critical ecosystem functions (as the source of human well-being), and therefore seeks a transition which brings us to what we know to be sustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions (see Climate Change).  Attempts to exhaust existing fossil fuels will produce dangerous levels of climate instability. From this perspective, the sooner greenhouse gas emissions are reduced and the process of reversing the current trend toward greater climate disruption, the better.

Eliminating All Non-Renewable Energy Resources
Nuclear energy has been identified as a possible replacement for fossil fuels (e.g. Lovelock), at least as a bridge to developing renewable technologies.  This alternative is problematic from a scale perspective for the following reasons:
  • Large scale condtruction of nuclear plants would consume large amounts of non-renewable fossil fuels, adding both to greenhouse gas emissions, and the depletion of these resources
  • The large financial investment required for major nuclear constructions would not be available for exploring or building renewable energy systems
  • nuclear energy has a low EROI of less than 10:1, making it unattractive compared to various renewable sources
  • Increased reliance on nuclear energy will speed up the depletion of the fuels required, shortening the period during which nuclear energy would serve as a bridge to renewable technologies
  • Nuclear wastes remain a major long term challenge for the health of humans and the rest of the biosphere.
In short, there is no compelling reason to consider replacing one non-renewable energy source with another. If we are to make major financial and energy investments in new energy technologies, let us ensure they are sustainable in the long run.
Choosing Renewable Technologies
There are a variety of renewable energy technologies available, some old and some new.  There is little doubt that these technologies can generate large amounts of energy.  The uncertainty lies with the financial and ecosystem costs involved (see Scale Problem).  Fossil fuels have been so abundant and heavily subsidized that research and development of these alternative technologies has been lagging.  There are few large scale installations of any of these technologies that can provide us with the information we need about their impact on ecosystems, and their long term sustainability. 
Several large scale tests of various renewable technologies are needed, including full life cycle analyses of their ecosystem impacts to determine which to choose for our long term energy needs. Many analysts have suggested that our future energy needs will be met by a variety of renewable technologies, each optimized in terms of local needs and resources. This means developing and testing several large systems simultaneously to learn which are most suitable in which circumstances.
Life Cycle Analyses Essential
Full life cycle analyses are essential to understand both the ecosystem and financial impacts of scaling up any of these renewable energy technologies for widespread use. There are a variety of problems associated with each of the renewable technologies (see Scale Problem).  Which of these will prove to be easily solvable, and which will be costly or impossible to solve is yet to be determined.  Understanding these problems is necessary before we choose which new technologies to invest in. Understanding the full life cycle impacts of various renewable energy systems on critical ecosystem functions will also help us answer the question “how much energy is too much” from a sustainable scale perspective.
Reducing Energy Consumption

More Attention to the Demand Side
Much of the attention to the energy problem has been focused on the supply side – where will we get our energy from?  Relatively less attention has been given to the demand side – how can we reduce our energy needs so that we ensure the minimum amount necessary to meet basic human needs and provide some measure of comfort and security? There are two primary reasons for giving more attention to the demand side:

  • It is likely that technical and or financial challenges will result in renewable technologies not being able to collectively supply the amount of energy we have come to rely on.  We may be forced to manage with less energy.
  • If large amounts of cheap energy were to be available, the impact of using this energy might increase the level of material throughput to such an extent that a larger number of critical ecosystem services will be compromised. Ecological sustainablity might require that we limit the global energy supply so as not to degrade critical natural capital.
The fossil fuel era was the first time in human history that we relied on non-renewable energy sources.  These unique sources provided an enormous upsurge in global energy use.  We are accustomed to using large amounts of energy, and it is difficult to contemplate that such large amounts of energy may not always be available. The reality is that all renewable energies have a much lower EROI than fossil fuels; whatever our energy sources in the future, we will be using more of it simply to produce energy. 
In terms of our global energy budget, we may decide that it is easier to manage with less energy, or, we may find that it is technically not possible for renewables to produce the same amount of energy we are using today. It will be decades before we have clearer answers to the question of how much energy renewables can provide, or how much is actually sustainable.  Prudence suggests we place a priority on conservation and seek ways of meeting our needs with as little energy as possible.  This is a radically different mind set than our current reliance on consumption.

The Downside of Energy Use 
Energy is required to do work; work involves moving matter through space over time.  The more energy we use, the more matter we move.  The more matter we move, the greater the impact on critical ecosystem functions.  Sustainable scale on a macro level is about not moving more matter than critical ecosystem functions can tolerate – i.e. where the material throughput is less than the regenerative capacities of the ecosystems involved (see Critical Natural Capital, and Sustainable Scale). 

Asking the Right Questions
This website identifies a variety of Areas of Concern where sustainable scale is threatened.  With a rising human population, consuming ever larger amounts of energy, material throughput will continue to increase and threaten ecosystem functions.  Managing our global energy use to optimize the benefits of material throughput for all living things is essential for a sustainable human civilization; this is the goal of determining optimal scale for energy use. 
The current dominant paradigm asks “how much material goods can we generate to contribute to human well being”?  The sustainable scale question is “what is the minimum amount of energy and material throughput required for human well being and maintenance of critical life support systems”?  The needed dialogue has hardly begun.

Considerable research and development is needed on two major fronts, both designed to reduce energy demands.  There are both technical and social challenges to accepting the idea that minimizing energy use is desirable.  On the technical side we need to increase the efficiencies of all technologies involved in both generating and using energy. Systems of incentives and disincentives would be helpful to stimulate these technical developments.
On the social side, a deeper understanding of the determinants of human happiness would are critical (see Understanding Human Happiness and Well Being). This would move our social systems away from material consumption as a priority and focus more on the qualitative development of social interactions and institutional activities. Social systems that emphasize the value of frugality would also contribute to a less materialistic and consumption oriented society, and one that focuses more on the quality of life issues that are the more powerful determinants of human well-being and happiness.

Energy Justice a Priority
People in developed countries currently waste more than half the energy they consume (in terms of energy’s contribution to objective indices of well being. See above A Hopeful Note?), while two billion people survive without electricity and the basic amenities that implies. Furthermore, rapidly developing countries like China and India are competing for energy, and a variety of resource wars are currently being waged with a focus on oil. These unilateral activities are increasing the grave disparities with regard to energy distribution, and demonstrate the lack of political will to address the major global energy problems.
In the transition to renewable energy sources, the issue of energy justice will need to be addressed for a sustainable energy regime to evolve.  One of the biggest challenges will be for people in developed countries to appreciate that they can reduce their energy use without diminishing their quality of life – if the proper technical and social policy changes are instituted.
1ref in Odum)
2(some refs here).
3.Smil, V.   Energy at the Crossroads:.....2003
4.  Klare   Resouce Wars      and Mc Quaig, L. Its the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil, and the Fight for the Planet, Doubleday Canada, 2004.

<< Scale Problem << >> Lessons >>
© 2003 Santa-Barbara Family Foundation