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Written by Paul Allen      Jan 22, 2015

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For a modern, zero-emissions society.


The extraordinary story of human beings & energy


Our current relationship with energy is only the most recent chapter in a very long story, beginning with the sun. It converts 620 million tons hydrogen into helium every second, and in the process releases an enormous amount of energy. Initially planet Earth was a desolate sphere of rock, gently warmed by this radiating energy. Then around 4 billion years ago, something incredible happened. A chemical reaction, which we now know as ‘photosynthesis’ began to bond energy from sunlight into ‘low energy compounds’ like carbon dioxide and water to create ‘high energy compounds’ such as sugars, that could power the growth, movement or reproduction of living things. Over millennia, photosynthesis powered the birth, life and death of an incredible evolution of plants and creatures, which as they died, took a portion of this captured energy (and captured carbon) with them as they fell to the forest or ocean floor. Under the influence of time, temperature and pressure these dead plants and animals became ‘fossil fuels’ – peat, lignite, coal oil and gas. Over millions upon millions of years, this process created the largest, most concentrated and most convenient reserve of stored energy we have ever known or are ever likely to know.

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Then we arrived


For the first few thousand years of civilisation, humans were completely unaware of the massive energy store that lay beneath our feet, our access to energy was limited to the ‘annual sunlight ration’ that fell on our particular share of the Earth’s surface. We lived at the mercy of the seasons, aided by the axe and the plough, as soil was the vital medium for converting sunlight to food for our families, grazing for our beasts of burden and wood for our fires. Everything depended upon access to land; so much blood was spilled in its pursuit. As we got more innovative we used sails to capture the sun’s energy that drove the winds, or water wheels for the energy that drove the water cycle. But the total harvested was pitifully low, as our tools were little more than canvass sails, wooden poles or buckets. 


King Coal


The discovery of coal changed everything. The ancient Chinese and Romans certainly knew of it, but when the labour, skills, accessible reserves and ingenuity really came together for an explosion of production in the 19th century – industrial coal kicked-off access to a massive multi-million year deposit of concentrated ancient sunlight. Humanity was no longer limited to our annual rations of solar energy. For the first time in our history, we had access to energy independent of land or season, under our direct control, whenever we wanted it, wherever we wanted it – and we could begin live as no one on Earth had ever lived before. Major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation swept across Britain, Europe, North America and eventually the world, triggering a process that marked a major turning point in human society; transforming almost every aspect of daily life across the globe. In 1859 The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company began to drill near a well-known oil seep in Titusville, Pennsylvania and the era of commercial oil was born, radically increasing the speed at which humanity could make withdrawals from our energy deposit account. With the invention of the internal combustion engine, oil quickly displaced coal as our largest source of energy and became the feedstock for a wide range of manufacturing.


The rise of the fossil fuelled dream


As the 20th century opened, the western world was awash with abundant, cheap fossil fuels. As populations escalated and industrialised, we grew accustomed to ever increasing volumes of dirt-cheap fossil-fuel energy and our captains of industry created economic systems built on the assumption that growth is the norm, and that it will be both perpetual and un-restricted. Coal, oil and gas, were plentiful and highly profitable to produce – so all our living and working systems were quite literally designed to use as much of them as possible. But nowhere was this ‘designer dependence’ on fossil fuels as marked as the coming of the motorcar. This was to be the major engine that would drive the post-war economy, so the newly sprawling towns and suburbs were designed to make the car not just a convenience but an absolute necessity.


Although the practice of ‘conspicuous consumption’ goes back beyond ancient Egypt, fossil fuels now provided the means to make this a mass phenomenon. One of the pioneers of using material goods to identify wealth and social standing was Edward Louis Bernays. He integrated ideas on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud and sold them to the American corporations. Underpinned by ever increasing quantities of abundant cheap fossil fuels, powerful new social norms began to hold a firm, yet sub-conscious grip on the emerging consumer society, and so making us reluctant to question the energy that underpins them. Almost without anyone realising it, fossil fuels had pervaded almost every aspect of our lives.

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More and more, faster and faster. More and more faster and faster. We began sleepwalking into a ‘fossil fuelled dream’, based on a mistaken assumption it could offer ever-increasing quantities of cheap energy. In comparison to any other time in our history the average energy underpinning a typical western lifestyle went off the radar, but it was normalised.  New generations grew up within this norm and somehow expect the lights will always come on, there will be petrol in the pumps and stocked shelves in the supermarket, and that we will have more fun, better relationships and greater success if we buy more, eat more, travel more and spend more.


A broken dream


But by the closing years of the 20th century, this fossil fuel dream was clearly fracturing. In little over 150 years, around half of the Earth’s massive reserves of conventional oil and gas, representing hundreds of million years of concentrated solar energy, had been consumed by a small but wealthy minority. Now, in the wake of our western media projecting our high-energy modernity across the globe, the rest of the world also began to claim their right to inhabit such lifestyle. Just as demand began exploding around the world, global rates of conventional oil production approached their peak, after which they must plateau and inevitably go into decline, with what remains being dirtier, harder to extract and considerably more expensive. In addition, we recognised that in burning them we had been re-releasing inordinate amounts of carbon dioxide locked away by ancient photosynthesis; taking us to the point of triggering dangerous and un-stoppable runaway feedbacks in natural climate systems. If everyone follows the fossil fuel dream and lives as we lived, we will damage the natural systems that support us in a deep way that is far beyond anyone’s ability to adapt. Business as usual is no longer an option, we can only safely burn around a fifth of the fossil fuels currently on the energy industry’s books. With the real price of fossil fuels rising and renewable energy prices steadily falling, there is an urgent need to open the next chapter in our relationship with energy – but something seems to be slowing progress.


Modern business corporations, their boards and CEO’s are systematically compelled by the free-market system, to maximize short-term returns to shareholders. They undermine emissions reduction legislation, not through deliberate malice, but because once shareholder capital has been deployed in developing pipelines, mines, oil wells or refineries and it is their legal obligation to maximise return on this investment. To make matters worse, the valuation of oil and gas companies and in turn large their investors such as pension funds, are based on the premise that these reserves are burnable. As the energy companies are very profitable with turnovers in excess on many nations, highly skilled lobbyists can deploy vast resources to keep their dream alive a little longer. 


We are now entering a genuinely new terrain


As more and more of us piece together this alarming big picture; the collective human violation of our planetary life-support system becomes one of the deepest and most pervasive sources of anxiety in our time. The overwhelming consensus in our science is clearly pointing the way forward, and we have the technologies this requires – but our vested interests are dragging us in almost the opposite direction. We see this, we know this, we realise the consequences but become disempowered. Society has created taboos against the public expression of such emotion and anguish, it has become culturally acceptable to passively observe. We are held fast, sleepwalking through the shopping malls, distracted, paralysed and overloaded in a continuous barrage of information. We simply put it away in that locker, just out of our conscious thought, where smokers keep the knowledge about lung cancer and get on with the immediate challenges of the day. Yet if we do not deal with such feelings they manifest deep in our physical or mental condition. Over recent decades such collective fear and disempowerment have transformed the way we think about future; from an exciting 1950s world of progress and excitement – to a dark and uncertain world of fear. Every time our contemporary culture looks a decade or two ahead, we now paint ecological collapse and zombie-ridden dystopia. Be it a novel, theatre, film, a TV series or even a computer game, the setting is always dark. From Blade Runner to The Road from 28 Days Later to World War Z – the list seems endless, and a whole new generation are growing up within this vision. If we are unable to imagine a positive future, we won’t create it.


Transforming our anguish into empowerment 


Clearly it is time to re-think the future; by reducing emissions fast enough to prevent the serious problems. The Zero Carbon Britain project was developed to offer the hard data and confidence required to visualise what a zero emissions future might actually be like. Through linking-up a smart approach to food production, diet, buildings, transport, energy or land-use and backed by ten years of real weather data modelled on an hourly basis, it shows how we are now no longer limited to soil, canvass and wooden poles – we now have an incredible array of ultra-modern technologies capable of capturing enough renewable energy to meet our needs. 


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The Zero Carbon Britain scenario


The Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) scenario demonstrates that we could rapidly reduce UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero by 2030, using only currently available technology. ‘Powering down’ our energy demand by 60%, and ‘powering up’ our renewable energy resources instead of fossil fuels and making changes to our agricultural system and diets would reduce the UK’s annual GHG emissions by 94%. We could balance out the remaining 6% of emissions from non-energy processes (such as cement production or methane from livestock) by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through carbon capture from forests and restored peatlands. This would take us to zero emissions overall.


Powering down

ZCB’s research shows that we could reduce our energy demand by around 60%, with particularly large savings in heating buildings and transport.

• Buildings: having high ‘Passivhaus’ standards for new buildings, retrofitting all existing buildings, and improving internal temperature control would reduce energy demand for heating by around 50%.

• Transport: reducing how much we travel, and how we travel – with more walking, cycling, use of public transport, switching to efficient electric vehicles and two thirds less flying – would reduce energy demand for transport by 78%.


Powering up

It is possible to meet 100% of the UK’s energy demand with renewable and carbon neutral energy sources; without fossil fuels and without new nuclear. In the ZCB energy scenario many different renewable energy sources suited to the UK – solar, geothermal, hydro, tidal and others – are used to produce electricity and heat.

• Wind energy – both onshore and offshore – plays a central role, providing around half of the energy supply.

• Most of the energy in this ZCB scenario (about 60%) is produced in the form of electricity.

• Carbon neutral synthetic fuels play an important role where it is not possible to use electricity – for example in some areas of industry and transport – and as back up for our energy system.


Balancing supply and demand

The important question for a 100% renewable energy system is not if we can produce enough energy, but whether we can produce enough energy at all times – even when the wind isn’t blowing, the sun isn’t shining and our energy demand is high. Hourly modelling of the renewables mix in the ZCB scenario shows that we would produce a surplus of energy 82% of the time. We ensure there is enough energy the rest of the time by:

• Shifting energy demand using ‘smart’ appliances and using batteries, pumped storage, heat storage and hydrogen for short-term energy storage over hours or days.

• Using carbon neutral synthetic gas, which can be dispatched quickly when needed for long-term energy storage over weeks or months.


ZCB hourly energy model

The ZCB energy model is one of the most detailed studies into balancing demand and supply in a 100% renewable energy system done to date. It uses hourly weather data (sunlight, wind speeds, temperatures etc.) over a ten-year period between 2002 and 2012 – a total of almost 88,000 hours – to test renewable energy mixes under real life conditions. This research suggests that ‘baseload’ power that usually provides a continuous supply of electricity, and can only respond slowly (nuclear, for example) doesn’t work well with a highly variable energy system, and leads to further overproduction when renewables already meet demand.


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Culture shift

Current UK climate change targets do not offer a good enough chance of avoiding what is now considered extremely dangerous climate change. In contrast, the Zero Carbon Britain scenario demonstrates that we could rapidly reduce UK emissions to net zero by 2030, using only currently available technology. However, the ZCB scenario remains beyond the boundaries of what is currently ‘politically thinkable’ and so becomes as much a challenge for our democracy and culture as it is for our technology. Science tells us things; but it is art that helps us take them on board at a deeper level. Creative practice has shown how we can break through prejudice, apathy, economic pressures and blind spots to catalyse a transformation of culture, attitudes and behaviours. Over just a few decades, creativity has radically transformed entrenched attitudes to gender, race, religion, class, smoking, health and safety, exploitation and equity. We must integrate our arts and sciences, to offer an urgently needed mirror that can shine a light on that 1950s fossil-fuelled dream which still quietly seeps out into the global subconscious and create spaces, both real and virtual, where inspiration, optimism and the possibility of positive change can be nurtured and explored.


Once a cultural shift is catalysed, legal, political and administrative frameworks follow suit. Together we can paint a mural across the invisible elephant walking through the shopping malls. Rather than playing a comforting piano in the bar of the Titanic, our creativity can join the dots between those replicating beacons of a positive future we see dappled here in the present. A new research report ‘Culture Shift’ produced by in collaboration between CAT and a number of other organisations in Wales argues that arts have a huge role to play in creating a cultural shift in our approach to climate change and sustainability.As we transform our culture, technology and lifestyle we begin to glimpse the next chapter in the extraordinary story of human beings and energy, through embracing what it would actually be like to live and love in a world were we are rising to our global challenges – and in the process discover a sense of collective purpose we have been craving for a very long time.


 To find out more about Paul Allen, click here.


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