David Fridley of the Post Carbon Institute discusses renewable energy technology and the future of industrial civilization. In the face of depleting fossil fuel reserves, renewable energy sources are held up as the best hope for clean, green and truly sustainable future societies. Upon closer investigation, however, solar, wind and hydro-power are much more limited in scope than we like to believe, making business-as-usual in the coming decades impossible using renewables alone.
Renewable technologies deliver much less surplus energy than conventional means, and the tendency to construct installations such as solar arrays and wind farms on a massive scale is a symptom of outmoded thinking with many unintended side-effects. Even if it were possible to convert the world to renewables, the effort in itself would burn through massive quantities of fossil fuels with potentially disastrous results.
Biofuels, fracking and nuclear power also come with their own lists of drawbacks and disadvantages. From food price spikes and environmental degradation to the seemingly-insoluble problem of storing and processing spent nuclear fuel, future reliance on any or all of these seems totally unrealistic. Meanwhile, major breakthroughs in more exotic technologies such as thorium and hydrogen always seem to just around the corner and have yet to arrive on a genuinely large scale. But as we face a future in which we have less and do less, and the creed of endless economic growth finally crumbles, the prospect of a fairer and happier world may move just a little closer.
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