Technologizing Our Way out – Hi Tech for Nature?

Part 2 of 2

Can we technologize our way out? This is the question last weekend’s Biodiversity Sunday set out to answer. As the reasoning goes, technology increases efficiency, thus decreasing resource use and pollution. A remedy against climate change and biodiversity loss, especially threatening Southeast Asia? Geo-engineering might be one technological fix to the current climate and biodiversity crisis. However, there are many different shades of geo-engineering, from very risky ones to ones as easy as planting a tree. And trees – better, cutting trees – brings us to the next green technology.

Cutting a tree and burning it, say in a wood stove, and then replanting the tree is a 100 % carbon neutral, isn’t it? The exact amount of CO2 emitted by the stove is captured by the replanted tree again – the perfect cycle, as performed by nature and men already for eternity. And even to date, 85 % of such so called biofuels like fuel wood, are used in a traditional way to a large extent by 2.5 billion people of the global south without access to modern energy for their daily heating and cooking.

Eating Away a Lot of Grain

Inspired by this widespread old-fashioned use, biofuels experienced a meteoric career also in industrialized countries: In theory carbon neutral and – unlike other renewable energies, such as wind and sun – storable, biofuels seem a panacea to both, the fossil fuel and climate crisis. With already more than 10% of the global primary energy generation, and 77 % of world renewable energy, biofuels are beyond doubt on the rise.

Soon the demand of fuels outnumbered the supply, enticing people to grow plants specifically for energy use. Now huge monocultures of corn, sugar cane or wheat supply bio ethanol, and rapeseed or oil palms produce vegetable oil to fuel cars and power plants. In doing so, the technology biofuel clearly replaces harmful and outdated fossil fuels, thus supposedly increasing resource efficiency, longed for by ecological modernization.

Ironically, there is one major pitfall. The efficiency of biofuels itself is miniscule. All biofuels are based on plants, which are basically light transformation machines. Via a mechanism called photosynthesis plants transform light energy, water and CO2 to oxygen and biomass – we can then put in our cars. However the efficiency of photosynthesis is just about 1%, dwarfed even by the fuel efficiency of still fairly inefficient combustion engines of about 20%. Taking into account the energy needed to fertilize, harvest and transport the plants, bioethanol has an efficiency of just about 0.1%. That does not sound promising on our way to more resource efficiency, does it?

This inefficiency also means that biofuels, at the end of the day, emit more greenhouse gases than the fossil fuels they try to replace. Palm oil for instance, staggering 300% more, rendering oil palm covered Indonesia the number three emitter worldwide. Analogously, this results in an undue onslaught to biodiversity. Biofuel induced deforestation, combined with huge monocultures, are a major driver of global biodiversity loss. ‘Its implications to biodiversity cannot be understated,’ affirms the ASEAN Biodiversity Outlook of the Philippine based ASEAN Center for Biodiversity which coordinates conservation and sustainable management of Southeast Asia’s diverse ecosystems. In addition, inefficient biofuels waste a lot of water and land, which could better be used to feed the billion or so malnourished people in the world. To illustrate, the amount of grain needed to fuel up the average SUV with bio ethanol could feed a person a whole year. Let the person eat his grain. Rather put solar cells on just a 600th of the field and power an electric vehicle instead of the fossil fuel based one – and drive the same distance.

Free Energy from Earth and Fire

That sounds more like an increase in resource efficiency and brings us to the next green technology.

Again you can google it. Google itself apparently did. Acknowledging the large energy demand of this and billions of other search queries, the company aims to be powering their so-called ‘googlefarms’ with renewable energy.

Renewable energy comes in the form of all four elements: wind, water, earth and fire. If we take a closer look however, only from the latter two. Our fiery Earth provides so called geothermal energy, most readers in the Philippines will be familiar with from the violent volcanic eruptions of Pinatubo or Mayon. The second source of renewable energy is indeed fire – fire from the already mentioned fusion reaction in the sun, providing our planet with free energy every day. This sun energy can either come directly, as sun-bathers know, or indirectly, making the wind blow, rivers run or plants grow. Remembering just how inefficient storing energy in plants is, let’s focus on the other forms of energy from fire and earth.

The good news is that fire and earth, unlike scarce oil or uranium, are not about to peak. Daily sun delivers 5000 times more energy than humanity can use, and sitting on volcanic islands neither Filipinos nor Indonesians have to worry about the fiery Earth cooling down anytime soon. ‘Indonesia could power its economy entirely on geothermal energy’, as Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute points out. In a nutshell, the world has plenty of free and clean renewably energy, and sun-kissed, volcanic Southeast Asia even more so.

The bad news? Using renewable energy is not the easiest thing to do. During the night the sun does not shine, during the dry season there might be no water, and the wind does not blow everywhere. So what to do? Store it, silly! But recalling the physics class, electricity produced by a solar panel, a hydro plant or a wind turbine has to be consumed in the very instance that it is generated. And unfortunately in storing electricity man does not do a much better job than the incredibly inefficient plants from the biofuel example. Instead of storing, why not share and trade it? As with any other commodity, say the surplus rice of a rice farmer, also trade electricity on a market. If an owner of a solar panel in Sydney cannot use its peak electricity on a sunny summer afternoon, why not send it to his freezing friend in a cold Beijing winter?

Unfortunately, electricity cannot be transferred as easily as the bag of rice the Chinese might use to pay his Australian friend. Not yet. And here another green technology comes in. ‘Imagine an energy sharing version of Internet-file sharing,’ as Michael Powers from the Global Energy Network Institute puts it. It is like sharing energy like your facebook pictures. This could be Desertec.

The Vision Is Big – So Is Climate Change

Desertec is inspired by the sun-baked Sahara desert in North Africa. The Sahara could, with a tiny amount of its area covered in solar panels, easily provide North Africa plus energy-hungry Europe with all the electricity they need. A large electricity grid can transport surplus energy to its consumers in Paris, London or Berlin and bring what is left to the vast Scandinavian gorges, where electricity is already being stored in dams and hydroelectric plants. A large consortium of investors liked the idea and is working hard to implement this European super grid. If this idea can work for Europe, why not for Asia, a region with the highest energy growth rates worldwide and the perfect physical environment for renewables?

A Pan-Asian super grid would distribute electricity from solar, geothermal, wind and wave energy from Australia to China. Natural gas and hydro would fill the gaps. ‘The vision is big. So is climate change,’ highlights Stewart Taggart of the non profit DESERTEC Australia.

An 8,000 kilometer electricity and natural gas transmission system would combine Australian surplus solar power, Indonesia’s extra geothermal energy and Mekong hydro with inner Mongolia wind energy in China. And China already shows that this is beyond phantasm. Until 2020 the huge country will have a unified electricity grid.

Such unification on a regional level could make the ASEAN the energy heart of Asia, giving it a new geopolitical heft. The 10 member countries would speak with one voice and have a moderating role in energy and climate policy, as Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary General ASEAN is convinced of.

But the network would also generate energy market efficiencies, spur innovation and increase energy security. According to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation electricity prices would become 23% lower than otherwise. The innovative energy and transmission technology can become a new economic engine. Just ask prosperous Germany, where green tech is now the biggest employer in the country.

And post-Fukushima Japan, suffering from year-long energy shortages after the Tsunami catastrophe, can tell you about the need for energy security. With electricity transmission links to neighboring countries, these could have sent not only humanitarian aid but also what Japan most needed- energy. But isolated and dependent on fickle nuclear energy, the country now suffers a severe economic depression, costing billions. However, these costs get dwarfed by the amount of money Asia will have to invest in energy infrastructure in the decades to come, a staggering $ 1.1 trillion in the ASEAN alone from 2008 – 2030. Better spend this kind of money in the right technologies then. The technologies for clean renewable energies and a smart super grid connecting them are readily available. Acknowledging this, a year after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, the DESERTEC Foundation and the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation (JREF) started to co-operate on promoting a super grid, which could serve Asia’s 2.7 billion people – a third of humanity.

Of Madmen and Economists

And humanity has to make a decision about the technologies it wants to foster. A decision that needs to be made now for an uncertain future. This, of course is highly contentious. Will it be geo-engineering in an attempt to fix the climate? So far technology was largely unable to repair the damage we humans have done to the environment. Nonetheless, technology had a significant impact in terms of alleviating environmental problems as a requisite to increase resource efficiency. A smart renewable energy system for Asia provides a good example: Less input and pollution create a higher value for society. Resource use and economic growth become decoupled through more efficient technology.

But such efficiency gains have a limit. To maintain permanent decoupling at constant GDP growth rates, energy and resource productivity must increase permanently. But this cannot continue forever, since after some first easy steps decoupling gets harder and harder until infinite effort is needed. A finite system will always put an end to economic growth. In systems scientist Kenneth Boulding’s words: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

And economists admit that so called rebound effects tend to eat up all improvements. A driver of a more fuel efficient car, for instance, is likely to have higher emissions, since he will drive more, now cheaper, miles. On a bigger scale, even though the Chinese economy’s carbon intensity has dropped by almost 70% over 30 years, China’s achievement of First World consumption standards would approximately double the entire world’s ecological footprint.

This shows that ever more efficient technology fails to address the root cause of environmental problems: The overconsumption of a few that crowds out the due development of many. Efficiency is blind without sufficiency. It might be necessary to adjust our consumption limits to Earth’s physical limits –and justly share the affluence we already have achieved. The answer to problems caused by greed might be as simple as modesty. And endless growth – be it in affluence or high tech – is not necessary to become or stay happy. On the contrary, too much material wealth can even be a burden. While in the US average income doubled between 1950 and 2000, the amount of happy people dropped steadily. This is a statistic to google, worth the carbon emissions.

First Published BusinessMirror 2013-09-07