To Power up or Power down? That Is the Question

2013•06•17 Brendan F.D. Barrett Osaka University

Recently I read that our challenge in the twenty-first century is to triple global energy demand “so that the world’s poorest can enjoy modern living standards, while reducing our carbon emissions from energy production to zero”. While I greatly admire the writings of Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, I would have been appreciative if, in the article in question,  they could have shared a link to some relevant reference that would explain how we might begin to overcome that challenge.

It appears that other readers of the article felt the same way. One jumped in asking whether there was “another essay … that details Breakthrough Institute’s solutions for climate change that aren’t pithy exhortations to continue the status quo?” This was followed immediately by another comment giving us two options:

“One, we use the [fossil] fuel up as fast as an unregulated market would want, say Y years. The other, we instead use that fuel at a much reduced rate due to a regulatory regime such as the now defunct Kyoto scheme such that it takes ZxY years to use up all the carbon fuel.”

The great questions then posed were what would be the temperature under each scenario and what is the scientific basis for those calculations?.

I would title these two scenarios Power Up and Power Down. Power Up is the scenario that Nordhaus or Shellenberger are referring to. It is business as usual with one caveat. We can only use these fossil fuels under the condition that the carbon emissions would be zero. Those are their words not mine and the reason is simple: If we cannot find a way to capture future carbon emissions from fossil fuel energy production, the scientific consensus is that we will fry the planet. I will talk about this later with reference to a 2006 document from the US Department of Energy.

[quote quote=”Power Up is the scenario that Nordhaus or Shellenberger are referring to. It is business as usual with one caveat. We can only use these fossil fuels under the condition that the carbon emissions would be zero.” type=”text” ]

We can call the second scenario Power Down. Here we are borrowing a term from Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute who wrote a book with that title — Power Down: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World — back in 2004. However, in explaining the details of how this scenario might be operationalized I would specifically like to refer to a presentation made by Saul Griffith in 2008 — The Game Plan: A solution framework for the climate challenge.

How much energy will the world need?

Now, maybe somewhere on the Breakthrough Institute website or in one of their publications, Nordhaus and Shellenberger have shared a calculation that explains how it may be possible to triple global energy supply (supply is a better word than demand or consumption in my view because supply ultimately limits demand). Unfortunately, I was not able to uncover anything.

While searching online, however, I was lucky to find a document prepared in 2006 by Jeff Tsao at the US Department of Energy, in collaboration with Nate Lewis at the California Institute of Technology and George Crabtree at the Argonne National Laboratory — a pretty impressive group. They effectively answered the questions posed for the Power Up scenario. These are:

It is worthwhile noting that they took the projections developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as their starting point (this should already get any climate sceptics out there hemming and hawing). But let’s get straight to the answers.

Assuming a global population of 10.4 billion, they project that world energy consumption will triple from 13.5 terrawatts (TW) in 2001 to 43 TW in 2100. So this is exactly in line with the statement made by Nordhaus and Shellenberger.

For CO2 emissions, this level of world energy consumption implies that the associated carbon emission rate would increase from 6.6 gigatons of carbon per year (GtC/yr) in 2001 to 13.3 GtC/yr.

The implications for the level of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere were also spelled out with the basic argument being that, assuming linearity, the 6.6 GtC/yr CO2 emissions rate would cause the concentration to quintuple from 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) (a relatively constant concentration for the last 10,000 years up to the start of the Industrial Revolution) to 1,470 ppmv.

Just for the record, on 10 May 2013, we passed the 400 ppmv mark, with very limited media coverage of this fact.

So now for our last question. Stabilization of atmospheric CO2 concentrations requires that by 2050 nearly 15 TW, and by 2100 nearly 30 TW, of our energy supply would have to come from carbon neutral energy sources. To put it simply, this implies that by 2050 we would need to produce more carbon neutral power than was available for all energy sources combined in 2001. But Nordhaus and Shellenberger take this one step further and suggest that all 43 TW of our energy supply in 2100 would have to be zero carbon. A big part of their answer on how to achieve this is to push nuclear energy.

[quote quote=”To put it simply, this implies that by 2050 we would need to produce more carbon neutral power than was available for all energy sources combined in 2001.” type=”text” ]

There it is. The Power Up scenario set out clearly. Now I know I could try to reference more up-to-date sources than the 2006 paper mentioned above, but it did provide succinct answers to our questions. There are so many details that we cannot go into here and a lot of uncertainties, but I think there is a clear message from this scenario. Basically, if you were to think of our energy consumption as a 13 TW pie at present, then under this scenario, in order to provide energy to the world population in 2100, we need to bake two additional pies. More pie for everyone, and zero carbon pies at that.

What we do not have in this scenario is the proposed ingredients — nuclear, coal, gas, solar, wind, etc. The challenge here also is that if we do bake three energy pies we have to keep baking them for as long as we possibly can even though many of the ingredients are finite.

So how about Power Down?

We have written about this scenario a great deal on Our World 2.0 in the past. For instance, we shared insights from the Low Carbon Society research project in Japan which aims for an 80 percent reduction in green house gas emissions by 2050. We also introduced the 2000-Watt Society in Switzerland where researchers argue that everyone in the world should move to an energy consumption rate of 2000 watts, dropping from today’s level of 10000 watts in the US and and increasing from 200 watts in Bangladesh at present up to 2000 watts.

We also discussed Saul Griffith’s “Game Plan” proposal in an article back in June 2012 and noted that there are other commentators who propose even more ambitious energy transformations. For instance, Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi at Stanford University argue that we can power the world completely on renewable energy in A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030.

The interesting point about Griffith’s Game Plan, however, is that he does not take nuclear energy out of the equation. He is also very specific about his goals by addressing the following choices:

Again the projections by the IPCC are used as the point of reference and Griffith explores the implications of various concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. He ends up selecting a concentration of 450 ppmv and an associated predicted temperature increase of 2°C.

He then examines the current arrangements globally for energy production and with the inclusion of biomass this is in the order of 18 TW in 2008 (higher than the above 13 TW because of the biomass). This he breakdowns down as: fossil fuels equivalent to 11.8 TW, biomass equal to 5.2 TW and nuclear at 1 TW. The remaining fraction is renewable (0.4 TW).

Subsequently, he assesses the potential of the various energy sources and comes up with an energy mix as shown in the figure below that would ensure the 450 ppmv target is met.

The first point to note here is that total global energy consumption is limited to 15 TW. Secondly, nuclear is significantly increased to a total of 4 TW and fossil fuels drops to 2 TW. The remainder is renewable energy and carbon neutral biofuels. In order to ensure this transition we would basically be required to redirect our entire industrial system to produce wind turbines rather than airplanes, solar panels instead of flat screen TVs, geothermal steam turbines instead of cars, and so on.

To get to this energy mix over the next 25 years we would need to build one 3-gigawatt nuclear power plant every week, three 100MW steam turbines every day, twelve 3MW wind turbines every hour and 100 square meters of solar cells every second.

This represents an enormous challenge. But it may be nothing compared to the political and social transformation that would be needed. The key issue with the Power Down scenario is that we only will have 15 TW to share amongst nine to ten billion people, which gives roughly 2000 watts per person (or Mexican levels of energy consumption today or energy levels for 1960s Europe). Not the end of the world, but definitely the end of a certain way of life.

[quote quote=”The key issue with the Power Down scenario is that we only will have 15 TW to share amongst nine to ten billion people, which gives roughly 2000 watts per person.” type=”text” ]

But it is here that I need to share some rather disappointing news about the Swiss experiment with the 2000-watt society. From 2008 onwards researchers at EMPA and the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) have been undertaking surveys and lifecycle analysis of 3,369 households in Basel and Zurich, pilot locations for the 2000-watt society. Last month they reported their research findings indicating that only 2 percent of the households surveyed were below the 2000-watt threshold. The results varied from an “exemplary” 1400 watts per person to 20,000 watts – ten times the target value.

It would appear that the 2000-watt society experiment is failing. However, the researchers did take consolation from the fact that low-energy households are found in every income bracket leading to the conclusion that “low energy consumption is possible with a high standard of living” but to get there will require the “greatest possible effort.”

So which scenario gets your vote?

The scenarios are pretty clear and both are daunting in different respects. Personally, I have to say that I find the business as usual/Power Up scenario proposed by Nordhaus or Shellenberger more difficult to swallow than the Power Down scenario. This may relfect a lack of an ambitious spirit on my part.

To a large extent, I agree with the words of Andrew Simms in his 2013 book Cancel the Apocalypse when he states that “an expanding global economy has already pushed us beyond natural limits. Yet capitalism respects no such boundaries. It is hard-wired to indefinite accumulation and growth, with all that implies for resource use.”

What Nordhaus and Shellenberger are pushing is the ever-expanding economy, but arguing that somehow we can make it carbon neutral, even if the technologies don’t exist yet or are unproven.

Simms also uses the pie analogy and claims that “…in a physically limited system where growth is ultimately constrained, simple logic dictates that to increase material standards of living the poor must require better, more equal distribution. If you cannot bake a bigger pie, you must get better at sharing what you have, otherwise you either condemn the poor to go without or crash the ecosystems that livelihoods depend on through over-burdening them.”

In response to this kind of statement, Nordhaus and Shellenberger may argue that we have no choice but to bake more pies because otherwise we will leave the poor in a state of extreme want and poverty. They put it this way:

“Once upon a time, social justice was synonymous with equal access to modern amenities — electric lighting so poor children could read at night, refrigerators so milk could be kept on hand, and washing machines to save the hands and backs of women. Malthus was rightly denounced by generations of socialists as a cruel aristocrat who cloaked his elitism in pseudo-science, and claimed that Nature couldn’t possibly feed any more hungry months.

“Now, at the very moment modern energy arrives for the global poor — something a prior generation of socialists would have celebrated and, indeed, demanded — today’s leading left-wing leaders advocate a return to energy penury.”

Ouch! But in response to such claims Simms might accuse Nordhaus and Shellenberger themselves of presenting “large-scale, centralized, top-down techno-fixes … offered as economically and politically neutral choices, in tune with scientific human advancement”.

Clearly there are no politically neutral choices with either energy scenario. Although Simms has never met Nordhaus and Shellenberger, we can imagine that a debate between them would be fascinating. Throw Saul Griffith into the mix and it would be even better.

But the takeaway from all of this is that both the Power Up and the Power Down require massive social, economic and political changes that will not be easy to stomach for large segments of the global population (particularly wealthy Western societies). The choices are stark. We can promise more pie, knowing that we are raising the stakes of either using up finite energy resources or breaking the climate. Or we can offer less pie to be shared more fairly, knowing that we would be robbing many of their dreams of a better life and that we have few examples of how such sharing arrangements have been able to work effectively in the past on the scale required.

[quote quote=”Both the Power Up and the Power Down require massive social, economic and political changes that will not be easy to stomach for large segments of the global population.” type=”text” ]

However, there may be a happy middle ground somewhere and the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been trying to find it under the framework of the “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative. This initiative has three main objectives to be achieved by 2030:

  1. Provide modern energy services for the three billion people currently without access to electricity or clean fuels for cooking.
  2. Increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix to 30 percent.
  3. Double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency to an average rate of 2.4 percent per year between 2010 and 2030 (compared with the historical rate of 1.2 percent per year).

An analysis of the potential of fulfilling these objectives while keeping global warming to 2°C was undertaken by researchers at ETH and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

They looked at 500 different scenarios and concluded that the achievement of all three objectives by 2030 would be consistent with limiting the global temperature increase to 2°C “with a high likelihood” of success.

But they highlighted several key challenges:

First, “only in a scenario with relatively low future growth in energy demand … can the energy efficiency target be achieved.”

Second, “such moderation in demand … would require a suite of aggressive policies aimed at promoting behavioural changes with respect to energy consumption and the rapid introduction of stringent efficiency regulations, technology standards and the inclusion of environmental costs in energy prices…”

Third, “to achieve all of this, major societal and political efforts are indeed required.”

So it is apparent that regardless of which path we follow, powering up, powering down or a middle path, the challenges we face are monumental. And yet, if we can make this transition happen and if we can truly transform our energy system to a zero carbon one, while providing sustainable energy for all, then perhaps a golden age awaits. Quite clearly, time is not on our side.

So let me bring this article to a close with the words of Hamlet and I believe that their relevance needs no explanation:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?”

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To Power up or Power down? That Is the Question by Brendan Barrett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Brendan F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for Global Initiatives and an adjunct professor at RMIT University School of Media and Communications. His core areas of expertise include ethical cities, urban transitions, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). He is currently a Visiting Professor at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.

Previously at UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008.