Rhein on Energy and Climate

In 2011 the EU Commission set out a long-term energy road-map for a Europe 2050 getting along almost without fossil energies.

Though it has sketched out the direction that ought to be taken to that end it has not explained what this would mean for our practical life.

The present ”vision” tries to do so. Indeed, if the EU wants to convince citizens of the merits of clean energy it needs to demonstrate that their standards of living will not be shaken and prepare them for the changes they will have to adapt to.

Living without fossil energies will be difficult to achieve without reducing our energy consumption. Much higher energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, though indispensable, will not be sufficient to do the job. The European renewable energy potential will not suffice to replace fossil sources which remain the mainstay of our present energy supply; and even much higher energy efficiency will not be able to produce miracles.

We must therefore learn not to waste energy, from switching off lights, computers or TV when not being used or resorting to public transport instead of personal cars.

We shall have to say good-bye to 500 km plane or car week-end trips and cultivate our distant contacts increasingly by electronic means.

We shall live differently. Most of us will live in big cities and put an end to suburban existence with daily commuting over 30 km or more. Urban life will once again become more attractive. Air and noise pollution will have largely disappeared. We shall move around walking, biking or using public transport.

We shall use substantially less energy for heating and cooling buildings.

Housing and public buildings will be so well insulated that they can do with a minimum of heating or cooling. District heating with combined power plants running on renewable energies and waste will have largely replaced individual heating and cooling; and the remaining needs will be covered through efficient heating and cooling systems like heat-pumps.

To reach that stage Europeans will have invested hundreds of billions of Euro in thermal refitting of buildings, the biggest private/public investment programme ever launched.

We shall use more electricity than today. But it will be generated essentially in plants powered through wind, water, solar and biomass. To cope with the inherent variations of these sources Europe will have installed a sophisticated continental network of transmission lines (grid) and storage facilities that will even out the fluctuations of supply. It will need a lot of technological prowess, especially in winter, and investments of many billion Euro to complete in the next few decades.

Consumers will not feel much of these profound changes. But they will become aware of the permanently varying electricity rates, reflecting sharply fluctuating supply. Manufacturing companies will fast adapt by operating as much as possible in low-price periods. So will clever households using their washing machines, laundry dryers etc. at night or weekend.

It is not possible to forecast if energy will be more expensive than today.

That will depend on the pace at which fossil energy will become more expensive than renewable ones, cost of which will further decline due to technical progress and economies of scale. Consumers able to exploit the fluctuations of electricity prices will most likely pay less for their electricity than today.

Transport will undergo profound changes in the next 40 years.

For long-distance travel we shall mostly use high-speed trains, powered by renewable electricity.

For cars, electrical engines will have largely replaced the 120 years old internal combustion engine, and conventional gas stations will have almost disappeared. This will be a revolution for the car industry and lead to an impressive increase in efficiency. The size and weight of cars will go down substantially; gone will be the days of four-wheel gas guzzler vehicles. Car ownership will be much less common than today; and those who still own one will benefit from cheap night- and weekend electricity rates to charge their batteries. Those without a car will feel relatively “richer” as they have much more money to spend for other purposes.

Heavy duty trucks for transporting goods across Europe will switch to hydrogen fuel cells produced by wind and solar electricity.

Customers are likely to buy more regional and local local produce and frown upon air-borne flowers, strawberries or grapes from South Africa, Australia or Chile during off-season,because it may have become more economical to store domestic fruits and vegetables . It will also become too costly to drink bottled mineral water transported 1500 km across Europe.

Our diet is most likely to change as we shall get more health-conscious. We shall eat red meat, which will become increasingly expensive because of mounting scarcity of fertile land, not to speak of the negative impact on methane emissions.

We shall be close to a paper-less society by the middle of the century. Newspapers and print books will have become rarities. This will be a very positive contribution to a healthier C02 balance.

By the middle of the century recycling will have become standard procedure for all waste, from metals to paper, wood, plastics and water. We shall not be able to do otherwise in view of rising scarcities and prices of raw materials. Cheaper methods of collection and sorting will make recycling much more attractive.

By the same token we shall say goodbye to the throw away society and return to old-fashioned habits of using durable goods and even clothing for longer time spans than presently, which would, of course, help reducing C02 emissions.

We shall find jobs in new activities. Energy-intensive industries and conventional power generation will have largely disappeared and the service sector will employ the bulk of the active population.

The list of changes on the path towards a C02 free society is, of course, much longer.

But these examples show that life without fossil energies will be very different from today, but not necessarily worse. We shall become a less material society, which is reason to celebrate. Physical, artistic and intellectual activities with friends and neighbours will take more of our time, which would do us good.

Let us bravely advance towards a C02-free society while constantly checking progress and obstacles on the way.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels.

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