Green energy myths causing paralysis

Posted on September 2, 2009


There is a belief that  alternative clean energy sources and technologies will substitute for fossil fuels to meaning we can carry on living like we are now.   Dr Susan Krumdieck says this myth is dangerous, it has  “induced paralysis when change is needed…we need to use less energy…we need to stop driving around so much”.

Every year that the general population can be made to wait for miracles and super-heroes, is another year of car sales, fuel sales, road building, sprawl development, jet-setting eco-tourism, entertainment governance and air-freighting of eggs to the USA.  It also means another year lost and increased risks, with no changes in urban form, land use integration, high efficiency transport networks, or other innovations that would reduce the motorized travel demand and improve wellbeing.

Susan Krumdieck spoke last week on “The Power of Myth: energy myths and how they threaten progress toward sustainability” .  She says says we’ve built our society around an unconstrained paradigm and these energy myths are standing in the way of the required shift.

She started by examining types of myths:

Myths are a universal fixture of human society, and provide several vital psychological services.  People need to make sense of complex situations, and they need heroes with super-human powers to save the day.  Myths have universal themes that help us understand moral dilemmas, to identify right and wrong.

These myths are OK, beneficial even, as cultural capital.   When they are not OK is when they get in the way of rational behaviour.

Myths, she says,

– have some factual elements;

– fulfil an emotional need;

– anecdotal evidence is sufficient;

– self propagate;

– are hard to eradicate; and

– are resistant to factual analysis.

Krumdieck then puts the green energy myth under the myth-busting microscope.   Note,  to be clear,  she is not critical of most of the  individual technologies, having worked on several of them.    The myth is the pervasive idea that there is alternative technology just around the corner that will replace fossil fuels in a way that we can continue current consumption patterns.

Her myth-busting formula goes like this:

– Existence test: does it exist?

– Delivery test: can I buy it?

– Performance test: what are the claims, in what units, does a standard exist, and is that carried out by an independent certifying agency?

– Material test:   What is the supply chain? What is the cost for the entire life-cycle?

– Market test: What is the current, or likely market penetration rate? (will incentives be required for uptake etc)

– Relevance test: Go back to the original claim, will this alllow us to continue current lifestyles/consumption and reduce the use of fossil fuels.

She starts with easy myths: running your car on water.    Clearly this would meet the last two tests, if it did exist there would be a huge market.   But it doesn’t exist – it is a myth.

Carbon capture and storage has a similar pattern – it meets market and relevance tests. Some components are in existence, but, says Krumdieck, no one is even close to capture CO2 from existing coal plants or cars (wikipedia describes CCS as a “theoretical approach”).

Hydrogen economy (the distribution of energy in hydrogen) is a harder myth to bust.   Again, components exist – Honda has one – the Clarity, but it is not available to actually buy “Clarity isn’t immediately available for purchase” – thus failing the delivery test and the supply chain test.   It fails more fundamentally on the relevance test,  while the hydrogen economy might mean we could maintain current lifestyles, it simply doesn’t work on the relevance (energy balance).   In practice, production of hydrogen from water requires more energy than is released when the hydrogen is used as fuel.   A reduction in carbon dioxide emission connected with hydrogen fuel is directly achieved only if the energy used to make hydrogen is obtained from non carbon-based sources.  And we don’t have this energy going spare in abundance.

Electric cars  a year or so away.  Also a myth says Krumdieck.   Yes, the cars will exist, but they are a long way from the performance of even the family car.   People see Tesla but get a golf cart.   The electric car also only meets the relevance test if powered by windmills.

Biofuels can power all our cars.   Fails on the relevance test.  Most places are talking about 3% displacement, this simply isn’t enough.   To make a difference to climate change would require a 100% substitution.  We do not have the ability to produce that much biofuel.  All the rape seed suitable land in NZ could produce perhaps 8% (and in doing so, the noxious rape seed would destroy the seed production industry).    Yes, several cities have biofueled school buses or city vehicles – we should celebrate this – but it simply cannot scale up to every car.

All these myths are having a devastating effect.  They are causing paralysis.   They are stopping us from addressing transport demand: we drive around too much.

Other developments are also myths, not because of the potential good, but because of the paralysing effect.  Emissions-trading, for example  is good (aside from the issue of incongruity of trading –  we would think it it weird to trade accidents, instead safety is regulated), but bad in that the promise (/threat) has paralysed us for years.  While we argue, oil inputs continue to climb.

This framework is useful for examining other areas of sustainability:

– Myth that it is not fair for NZ to be reducing emissions when America is the problem.   Krumdieck points to Colorado, the same size and population  as NZ with lower energy use.

– Myth that what the West does is irrelevant, it is China that matters.   Krumdieck points to the relative levels of consumption rather than the absolutes.  She is optimistic about the “contraction and convergence” model.

So,  we have a myth of simple solutions to a complex problem: alternative clean energy sources and technologies that will substitute for fossil fuels to support the lifestyles we are afraid to change.   Krumdieck says the solution to climate change is  sociological rather than technological.   It is a mistake to be waiting for a miracle that will not happen.    But we need to be careful that hopelessness is not equally paralysing.    Instead we need to be optimistic that the answer is in behaviour change.   It is a question of who we think we are, and how we relate to others.   These others may be in other places and in other times (but those future people are not some mythical ignorable – we will know them, and they will know who we were) .

Krumdieck reminds us that we are expecting massive changes in thought, processes, economy and operation.   We have done this before, people have demanded freedom and inclusion before, but still having to get consent from the very system they rallied against (slavery, emancipation etc).   We have also stepped back from the brink, nuclear holocaust is not the extreme threat it once was.   And we’ve done before exactly what is required now (WW2 petrol use).  In that case it was in the face of extreme and obvious national emergency.   Unfortunately climate change is not so obvious (though I’ve just had an interesting discussion with a student group about their proposal for a computer game that shows CO2 as a purple gas) , but stories such as this attest to the power of species adaptability and national will – properties we’ve forgotten we have, and that are hidden behind the paralysis generated by myth.