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A fortnightly stockpile of science, technology, long overdue energy articles, and good news. Not necessarily in that order.
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The Crunch # 64


Homo Electric and the Trillion Dollar Time Trial (Part 1). Plus, exoskeletons, molecular postcodes and good news on sanitation, trachoma and same-sex marriage in Costa Rica.

I sailed upon oceans, and I thought no challenge could be greater, and now men sail the void between stars.

Peter F. Hamilton, The Neutronium Alchemist
If you’ve spent any time reading space opera, you’ll be familiar with the moment when someone from an advanced civilisation arrives on a distant planet, and discovers that its inhabitants are using hydrocarbons as their primary energy source. Our genetically engineered, wisecracking heroine is suitably appalled or amused.

Getting most of your energy by setting black rocks on fire and blowing up dinosaur juice is, quite clearly, the behaviour of a backwards and savage people. It’s dirty and it’s dangerous. If intelligent life can invent internal combustion engines, then it’s also prescient enough to know that burning carbon will create a greenhouse effect and ruin the environmental conditions that allowed it to flourish in the first place.

In order for a planetary society to advance, at some point it has to undergo a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. A systemic change that is both driven by and drives technological innovation, forges new political and economic systems and operates on a whole new scale. Which all sounds lovely, especially when you can deal with it in a few sentences in a fictional story.

Unfortunately, in the real world, we don’t know how a clean energy transition gets done. Our sample size for known planetary civilisations is one. We’ve never actually seen intelligent life successfully make it to zero-carbon status.

The trillion dollar question: is it possible?

As you, our subscribers, are well aware, for the last few months we've been thinking a lot about that question. In the next three decades the human race is going to try and pull off the largest and most important energy transition in our species’ history. If we get it right, it will transform every aspect of the way our society functions (just as all energy transitions have in the past). If we screw it up or if it happens too slowly, we will set in motion a chain of events that will result in unimaginable disaster.

This is our opening salvo on the current state of play in the global energy situation, a tour across the frontiers of what’s to come. A deep dive into energy disruption, not just in wind and solar, but batteries, fossil fuel subsidies, disinvestment campaigns, electric vehicles, smart grids, the electrification of cooling and heating, air transport, shipping, and industrial processes.

We set out to understand what it truly means to make the transition to a low carbon energy system and came away with a new appreciation for just how high the stakes are, heads full of numbers and hearts full of hope and fear. We don’t have any easy takeaways for you. Once we're done though, you’ll have a much deeper understanding of where the human race stands in our attempt to make the leap across the great energy divide.

There’s a lot of good news if you know where to look, but also plenty of sobering evidence and some downright scary scenarios. It’s complicated. You have to be able to consider competing ideas, to combine the encouraging news with a recognition of just how much inertia is in the system, and the increasingly alarming narratives about the catastrophic impacts climate change will wreak, or more accurately, is already wreaking. Throughout, we've tried as much as possible to channel Michael Liebrich, the head of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, who says, “The world doesn’t need fairy stories, it needs clear thought, robust analysis and data, data, data.”
 
What, after all, was the point of civilisation if not the well-being of citizens?
 
Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice

The World According to Grumpy Old Men

Coming up with new ways to turn energy into heat, light and motion is one of the most important drivers of human progress. If you spend any time digging into this topic, you’ll eventually end up at Vaclav Smil, perhaps the world’s foremost thinker on the subject. He’s an old, grumpy man who spent his childhood splitting firewood in cold Czech winters and says things like “I don’t like to eat out any more because so much restaurant food these days is pre-made.” He’s also extremely influential. No serious discussion about global energy is complete without him.

According to Smil, humanity has experienced three major energy transitions. The first was the mastery of fire, an evolutionary step forward that allowed us to release energy by burning plants. The second was the transition from hunting to agriculture. Human societies began deliberately converting sunlight into food, which allowed animals and humans in turn to provide extra energy in the form of muscle power. That era only ended just over a century ago. Third came industrialisation, where energy became the domain of machines: the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and the transformer. Those machines of course, were powered by fossil fuels: coal, oil and most recently natural gas.

In the current climate of sound and fury it’s easy to forget what an extraordinary gift fossil fuels have been to the human race. For centuries, they’ve turbocharged basic human needs such as food, clothing, shelter, and given us new material comforts that have raised our standards of living far beyond anything our ancestors could have imagined. The steam engine for example, was a miraculous improvement over animal and water power. It made new forms of work possible, led to mass electrification, and when those steam engines were placed on rails they opened up entire continents to commerce and trade.

As we moved into the 20th century, we started getting really good at harnessing the power of oil. We used petroleum products to power our combine harvesters and to make the fertilisers and pesticides that eliminated hunger and starvation for billions of people. The mass production of cotton, hemp, flax and wool wouldn’t have been possible without fossil fuels, and when we combined them with polyesters, nylons and rubbers ―materials invented by the petrochemical industry―they gave us new clothes to protect us from the burning sun, killing cold, cutting wind and soaking rain.

Oil ushered in a new age of mass production, accelerated electrification and eventually changed the face of the planet. It created new forms of urbanisation (high density living isn’t possible without elevators and air-conditioning) and new ways of living (cheap laminate for our floors, rubber seals to insulate our windows, paint for our walls and plastic to make our electrical wires safe). Oil quite literally fuelled a new age of better, cleaner transport (horses were a lot dirtier than buses and cars) and transformed the means of production in almost every industry. It also gave rise to a new era in geopolitics. New trade routes opened up, new energy superpowers were born and brand new metropolises sprung forth from our deserts.
Our energy system today is a world-spanning, mind-blowingly complicated tangle of turbines, tankers, transformers, pipelines, pylons, gas wells, wires and waterways, cars, coal mines, heaters and ovens. It’s what philosopher Timothy Morton calls a hyperobject, an “event or system or process that is too complex, too massively distributed across space and time, for humans to get a grip on.” Black holes are hyperobjects, the global weather system is a hyperobject, and so is the human brain, with its 85 billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of connections. We can conceptualise their basic outlines and we live with their effects, but they are quite literally beyond our ken.

That’s why it’s so hard for us to wrap our heads around what an energy transition actually looks like, and why we tend to underestimate how long it takes. Most people for example, associate the 19th century with coal, the 20th century with oil, and believe the 21st century will inevitably be all about renewables. The historical record suggests otherwise.

The 19th century may have been an age of industrialisation for England and the United States, but globally, it was dominated by wood, charcoal and leftover crops (mostly straw). Coal only reached 50% of the global energy mix by 1900 and even today, a billion people get most of their energy from biomass and a third of the world’s population cooks on open stoves. The system has inertia.

Coal was actually the biggest energy source for most of the 20th century and was only surpassed by oil in 1964. And only three major economies, the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States, have accomplished a third fuel switch, to natural gas.
 

Yes, rapidly falling costs and growing investments have helped boost wind and solar power, but these energy sources — like nuclear, oil, and gas before them — are still building on top of old ones, rather than replacing them. Today, 18 years into the 21st century, biomass, coal, oil and gas supply 90% of the world’s primary energy, and coal is still the world’s dominant source of electricity.

That’s a problem, because this wonderfully complex thing we’ve created, this energy hyperobject that’s the foundation of so much of our prosperity, is starting to create serious damage. When we burn fossil fuels they release huge quantities of carbon dioxide, sulphur, mercury and other nasty stuff into the atmosphere. When you blanket the planet in heat-trapping gases over a long period of time, it creates problems — ones that we’ve known about for a very long time. Our energy system is dirty, dangerous and it's destroying the planet.

We’re well overdue for the fourth energy transition, to clean energy.
 
Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it, and I can only dance in my chains.

Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem

The Fourth Energy Transition

When most of us think of clean energy, we associate it with electricity. You’ll often see this mistake in newspapers, who report that a country or a business has announced plans to go all of their electricity from renewables, which means "they’re moving to 100% clean energy."

However, while electricity is a very important part of our energy system, it’s far from the only part. Burning fossil fuels for electricity only accounts for around a third of global carbon emissions. Other major sources of carbon emissions in the energy system include transport (that burns oil), the heating of homes and buildings (natural gas) and industry (that use oil, coal and gas). Together, these all account for around 70% of global carbon emissions, and they’re what we're concentrating on here. 
 

Then of course, you’ve got the emissions that come from agriculture, land clearing and deforestation. Technically, they’re a key part of the energy system too but if we included them in this story then we’d be here forever. And if you want to get really technical, carbon emissions only account for about three quarters of total greenhouse gas emissions. Another 17% is methane from landfills, oil and gas wells, coal mines, and cow belches. And 7% is nitrous oxide from agriculture and wastewater management.

The point here is that while carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas, it’s not the only greenhouse gas. Likewise, electricity is an important component of energy, but it’s not the only component. If we want to reduce the world’s carbon emissions then yes, cleaner electricity is a good place to start. But it’s only the beginning. All the planes, trains and automobiles? We have to figure out a way of getting them to run cleanly too. We’ve got to figure out new ways to heat our homes and cook our food. All the steel, cement and plastic whose production depends on fossil fuels? We need to come up with new ways of making them. We have to keep creating all the basic things that modern societies need.

Ready? Because it gets harder.

Not only do we need to start replacing all of the existing fossil fuel mix with clean energy — we have to give access to all the newcomers. The billion people who still rely on burning wood and charcoal? They’re going to need their lights switched on. And then there’s the billions of people who are going to be added to the global population this century. Global energy consumption is going to climb by 30% over the next few decades as developing countries get richer (according to the IEA, China alone needs to add the equivalent of the entire United States’ power sector by 2040).

Starting to get the picture? It’s pretty sobering. The sheer enormity of the world’s energy demand is hard to get your head around. To cut emissions fast enough and keep up with growth, we’re going to need to accelerate the energy transition to a whole new level. We have to add billions to the grid and provide more energy for the new middle class in Asia and Africa and we have to do it while replacing all the old infrastructure that we’ve already got. And all of it needs to happen in the next 30 years.

This is the largest technological challenge in our species’ history.

Developed nations are going to have to start racing toward net-zero emissions by mid-century and developing nations will need to find a very different path to prosperity than the one travelled by the countries before them. By 2020, global spending on zero emissions technologies needs to be doubled, and the cost of renewable energy must beat out coal in every single energy market. The majority of the world’s countries must have fully committed to electrifying their transportation systems, and new transmission infrastructure needs to start being built on a mass scale. All of the Fortune 500 companies that represent heavy industries must have committed to the Paris targets, and their emissions-reduction plans must be in effect.

By 2050, emissions need to drop to 30% of what they’re at today. That means that nearly 95% of electricity must be clean, and 7 out of every 10 new cars will need to be electric, compared with 1 in 100 today. We’re going to have to build 40–50 terawatts of clean energy capacity during that time too, an almost unimaginably large amount of infrastructure. Yes, renewables are now a multi-billion dollar industry. Sure, we’ve seen an extraordinary increase in the amount of clean energy being installed around the world in the last few years. But it’s still just a drop in the ocean. That’s why people like Rex Tillerson (remember him?) say: “It takes 100 years or more for some new breakthrough in energy to become the dominant source.”

Fortunately for all of us, Mr Tillerson has forgotten that history doesn’t repeat itself.

It rhymes.

(to save your inboxes from destruction, we've put the rest of this article up on Medium)
 

Good news you probably didn't hear about 


In 2000, trachoma threatened 2.8 million people in Ghana (15% of the population) with blindness. It is now the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to eliminate the disease. Devex

India is in the middle of the largest sanitation building spree of all time. Almost 80 million household toilets are estimated to have been built since 2014. Arkansas Democrat Gazette

In Germany, 26% of refugees admitted since 2015 are now employed and the share of MPs with migrant backgrounds has risen from 3% to 9% in the last two elections. Economist

Costa Rica's Supreme Court has ruled that the country's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional, and has given the government 18 months to change the law. BBC

Scotland has become the first nation in the world to guarantee free sanitary products to all students at schools, colleges, and universities. Quartz

The rate of prison recidivism (people who return to state prison after being released) in the United States has dropped by nearly a quarter over a recent seven-year period. Pew 

Brazil cut its carbon emissions from deforestation by 610 million tons last year, reaching its 2020 climate change targets three years ahead of schedule. VOA

New Caledonia has agreed to place 28,000 square kilometres of its ocean waters under protection, including some of the world's most pristine coral reefs. Forbes

In the past three decades, southern Niger has been transformed by 200m new trees, part of the largest positive transformation of the environment in African history. Guardian

Indistinguishable from magic


Ford, the company that brought us the production line, is now offering exoskeletons to employees in 7 countries, reducing injury and fatigue and creating 20kg of extra lift. ZDNet

A state in Nigeria is now using GPS-enabled drones to monitor cattle movement, stop livestock theft, and evaluate the impact of cattle grazing on farmlands. iAfrikan

Researchers from Google have teamed up with British researchers to develop a machine learning algorithm that detects over 50 eye diseases as accurately as a doctor. The Verge

The world's largest 3D printed reef has just been installed in the Maldives. Made from hundreds of ceramic and concrete modules, it's designed to kickstart reef recovery. 3ders

Scientists from the University of Texas have successfully transplanted lab grown, bioengineered lungs into pigs, with no observable adverse reactions. Popular Mechanics

Chinese geneticists have used a new form of CRISPR to repair a disease-causing mutation in viable human embryos created from standard fertility clinic techniques. STAT

Cell biologists at the University of Exeter have used a "molecular postcode" to deliver chemicals directly to mitochondria in cells, reversing the ageing process. Science Alert

The information superhighway is still awesome


If, like us, you're an avid spectator of the gruesome, slow motion death rattle of the coal industry, then you're going to love our new favourite newsletter, CoalWire.

Went into this Rolling Stone profile of former child star, loudmouth Burner and Bitcoin billionaire Brock Pierce expecting the worst and came out liking him despite ourselves.  

Inspired by World War 1 naval camouflage, the folks at CVDazzle have spent the last few years developing facial makeup designs designed to fool facial recognition algorithms.

While we're not usually fans of listicles, we are fans of Gretchen Rubin, and she's been keeping a running list of her top Secrets of Adulthood. Lots of lovely nuggets of wisdom. 

Official statistics suggest we're winning the war on cancer, and yet it often doesn't feel like that. So what's going on? Slate Star Codex decided to take that question on... definitively. 

You know who's really biased? Humans. Decades of research suggest that if you're needing to make a decision, you're probably a lot better off trusting an algorithm. HBR

And finally, someone on the internet has come up with a wonderful explanation for the existence of gods. All we can say is Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.

Thanks for hanging in there folks, regular programming has resumed. Part 2 of the Trillion Dollar Time Trial coming next.

Much love,

Gus and Tane

There are 12,830 people subscribed to this mailing list: thank you for reading. If it's your first time, you can subscribe over here. There's an archive of all the back issues over here. Find us on Twitter as @future_crunch and on Facebook as futurecrunch.
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