Since the middle of 18th centurymankind has been using fossil fuel energy as a bank account, from which we collectively withdraw every year using a peculiar sort of ATM.
It is peculiar because we need to deposit a small amount in order to get the amount we want in return – the ratio of the amount we withdraw to the amount we deposit is energy return on energy invested (EROEI).
Fundamentally, we invest energy to be able to get more energy. Fossil fuels used to be plentiful and easy to get at; that gave them a high EROEI.
Enjoying this bonanza, our collective withdrawals increased exponentially.
But that ATM draws from a limited account; fossil fuels are finite.
Today we are hitting the limit of the energy ATM. We can’t withdraw any more energy without depositing a lot more than we once did. This increase in the EROEI, which currently ranges between 10 and 30, is arguably contributing to the protracted global recession.
Given the limited fossil energy bank account, we must find ways to “invest” that will give us a reliable energy income in the future but also to use energy income more efficiently.
Investing in renewable energy does not pay back immediately but over a longer time frame – more like a capital investment. If we don’t invest enough, and we wastefully use our fossil account, we risk falling into an energy trap: we will find it impossible to invest enough energy in the short term to withdraw enough to meet the needs of nine billion humans.
The consequences would be dire. Our critical infrastructuresystems that provide us with food, water, transportation, and shelterrely on large amounts of energy. But if we leave ourselves insufficient surplus credit, we could be stuck without the means to jumpstart the requisite renewable energy investment.
So how do we avoid this? How much should we invest in the transition to renewables, and how soon? What forms should it take? As part of my research at the Masdar Institute Center for Smart and Sustainable Systems (iSmart) I have examined the requirements and limitations that such an energy transition entails.
In order for this transition to be indeed “sustainable” we would need to concern ourselves with each of the three sustainability pillars (environmental, social, and economic).
First, neither fossil fuels nor renewables should be allowed to impact the environment irreparably.
Second, a minimum level of energy should be available per person and any changes in energy availability must be smooth and allow adaptation.
Third, the rate of investment in renewable energy should be enough to compensate for the reduced fossil fuel supply.
Finally, the amount of consumption that we do today using monetary debt and the availability of energy to service that debt in the future should balance.
Representing these principles through mathematical relationships we can calculate net energy availability. If we allow fossil fuels to run their course, we will need to increase our current rate of investment in renewables fourfold.
This, though, would create an unlivable planet due to climate change. To meet the IPCC recommendations that offer a 50 per cent chance of a manageable climate, we need an eightfold increase of our investment in renewables.
For the UAE – a major oil exporter blessed with one of the higher EROEI for its fossil wealth – a global sustainable energy transition implies that the UAE will be able to export fossil fuels when other less competitive extraction, such as shale oil, tar sands, and deep oil, has stopped.
Nevertheless, the country will need to accelerate its proactive preparation for a reliance on a sustainable energy system because it allows it to prolong the use of its fossil wealth into the future.
Even before nuclear power comes online, solar energy can scale massively. At today’s prices photovoltaic generation is competing positively with liquefied natural gas imports and our existing grid can easily accept several thousand megawatts without substantial change.
We cannot afford to wait to scale up in the future – this transition takes time, and the time to start is now.
Dr. Sgouris Sgouridis is associate professor of engineering systems and management at the Masdar Institute and head of the Institute Center for Smart and Sustainable Systems (iSmart). His paper on the topic can be accessed at: http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/6/5/2601