My book, Salvage, is set in a future where humans have all but used up the Earth’s fossil fuel supplies. Rather than embracing new and cleaner technologies, the citizens of today allowed themselves to succumb to the fear-mongering of energy and mining companies and the short term expense of change. In doing so, they have created a future Earth polluted to the point where it has become too toxic for them to live. The temperature changes have added to this chaos, creating higher seas, extreme environmental instability and deadly weather patterns. While Salvage is a fictional action-adventure story set in this future projected world, this blog post takes a more serious look at the topic, one that I am extremely passionate about.
The climate change debate has been raging for some time now. Doubt has been cast on the science behind it, and we are constantly fed conflicting messages. Both sides of the argument have used fear to try and win support and either scare us into action or cripple us into inaction. So let's put the question of climate change, and the fear it evokes, aside for a moment and look at this debate from a new angle. Energy production is at the very core of this argument; with the burning of fossil fuels being cited as the major driver of climate change. Energy is a precious commodity for humanity, something that underpins virtually every aspect of life in modern era. There is no question that we need to continue to produce energy. Which means the debate really becomes about the way by which we product energy; the long established methods of extracting and burning fossil fuels versus the new emerging methods of harnessing clean energies. By comparing the two competing technologies of energy production, we can sidestep the fear and confusion around climate change and get to the heart of the matter.
Let’s examine the efficiency of the two technologies. In the modern world, efficiency is key to the running of any successful business. Fossil fuel technology requires multiple steps on the road to energy production. First, surveying is required to source fuel deposits. Once identified, they need to be extracted and this requires considerable investment in the building and operation of the tools to do so; huge machinery for digging, deep-ocean drilling, the safety equipment required for the careful extraction of unstable and toxic materials like uranium, the engines needed for the pumping of water under immense pressures for gas extraction. Once extracted, refining and transportation needs to be considered; cleaning the product ready for use, and moving it from the mines to the energy plants. The energy production itself is dangerous and costly; dealing with the combustion of highly flammable materials, or the containment of radioactive matter. And finally there is the disposal of waste by product.
By comparison, clean energy offers much more efficient method of energy production, cutting out many of the processes required by for fossil fuels. The technology is based on capturing or harnessing existing, natural energies; like the natural radiation from the sun, or the kinetic energy in the wind and the waves. The manufacture and maintenance of panels and turbines is required, and land for the energy farms. In many cases, the land needed can continue to be used for multiple purposes; such as installing solar panels on the rooves of existing buildings, or continuing to farm stock on land that also hosts wind turbines. There is no physical transportation costs, no refinement required, no danger involved in the production of the energy, no waste product to dispose of afterwards. On the question of efficiency, clean energy wins hands down.
The second measure is environmental impact. Continuing to set aside the specific question of Climate Change for the moment, let’s look at the other environmental impacts from each technology. The production of energy through fossil fuels has a high impact on the environment. It tears great holes in the ground for the extraction of coal and uranium. It requires deep sea drilling with high risk of oil leaks and the damage this does to our oceans and marine life. It results in water pollution through the fraking process in coal seam mining. It creates air pollution in the burning of fuels, from coal, to gas, to petrol and oil. It creates noise pollution through the operation of immense machinery, the running of power plants, the petrol engines in cars and trucks.
Clean energy cuts out many of these impacts completely and minimises others. The manufacture of panels and turbines has an environmental impact, though this would remain far less than that generated in the building of the mammoth mining equipment and power stations required by fossil fuel production methods. Noise pollution is minimised; electric engines are far quieter than petrol, the generation of solar power is completely silent, and the sounds made by wind turbines are minimal. The main complaint is of an aesthetic nature, particularly against wind farms spoiling the view. Again, this is no greater impact than the scars left from mines, or the power plants dominating a landscape and spewing clouds of smoke into the sky. There is little doubt the environmental impact of clean energies is far lower than of fossil fuels.
Now, let’s consider health impacts for a moment. Consider the first breath of country or sea-side air when you take a holiday and get away from major metro centres. There is a euphoric feeling about it, something pure and cleansing. Now consider the opposite; when you are passed by a bus or truck whilst running down a highway and you inhale a lungful of petrol fumes. The experience leaves you gasping for breath and sickened from the toxins that have entered your system instead of oxygen. While not always in such extreme doses, we are breathing in these same toxins every day, and it is likely adding up over days, weeks and years. There is serious question marks on the health impacts of fossil fuels on humans, particularly in densely populated regions. We know that in developed countries, asthma, allergies and respiratory problems are on the rise. Tobacco has taught us that breathing toxins into our body can cause cancer, even just through second-hand breathing. There are no negative by-products for clean energy. No gases leaked into the air, chemicals escaped into water systems, no fumes to be inhaled. There is no evidence or even a suggestion that clean energies bring about any health concerns. The same cannot be said for fossil fuel energy.
Now let’s consider the sustainability of energy production for the two methods. Pipeline is crucial to the running of any successful business, and energy is no different. Fossil fuels are a limited resource. There is a finite amount of coal, gas and oil on earth. There is no production pipeline for fossil fuels, as we are rapidly burning through a resource that formed over billions of years. The more that is used, the harder it will become to source, which in turn will put immense pressure on price. Renewable sources like ethanol may prolong the life cycle of some of these resources, but are not viable options to replace them completely. Clean energy has no issue of sustainability. While the sun continues to shine, the wind continues to blow and the moon continues to generate the tides, our source of clean energy remains secure. The main challenge to overcome for clean energies is in consistency of output. Solar energy is not viable at night-time and wind energy can be sporadic, depending on the weather. The development of tidal energy generators is a big step forward in this space, as the waves have far more consistency and regularity. And with a diversity of products, it should not be difficult to overcome this challenge and create a reliable source that can meet society’s needs.
The final measure to consider is profitability. This is the ultimate barrier to clean energies, and the factor that is currently over-shadowing all the others. However, it is only a barrier because those invested in fossil fuels make it so. The energy production industry is hugely profitable. Many of the world’s richest people have made their money off the back of mining. It is in their interest for this industry to remain strong, and they are fighting to keep it so. But ultimately, it is not coal, gas, or oil that is valuable, but the energy that it produces, regardless of its source. There is no economic barrier to clean energy being just as profitable as fossil fuels. It has the potential to be far more so, for all of the efficiency factors discussed above. Remember, at its core this debate is one of a new technology vs an old technology. Human history is full of such examples; the car replaced the horse and cart, the telephone replaced the telegram, email has largely replaced traditional mail, print and other traditional media are in the process of being replaced by digital media. In all of these cases it took time for the new technology to become more profitable than the old. In all of these cases, there was an economic impact for the old technology. But in none of these cases did the new technology cause economies to grind to a halt, as is sometimes suggested by those resisting change. History has shown that these events actually have the opposite effect; they aid economies and societies to take big steps forward, through greater efficiencies and the re-investment of resources into new areas.
The reality of the climate change debate is that is doesn’t need to be about fear. It is really about the opportunity to upgrade technologies; to dramatically scale back on the use of fossil fuels in the production of energy, and replace it with clean energy options that are healthier, safer, more efficient, sustainable and have far lesser impact on the environment we all rely on. We don’t hesitate to upgrade our mobiles every year or two, for the new and better features we get as new models are released. It’s time for a major upgrade in our energy sector.