“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”
Shakespeare, Richard III
This may become the winter of our discontent as people around the world face a widening energy crisis, rationing because supplies are limited due to delivery shortages, production limits, cost, or by government mandate. We likely face a severe reduction in the amount of energy and goods available. We need to understand a simple truth…the path to renewable energy was never going to be easy. The only way to reduce green house gas emissions is to reduce the combustion of higher carbon fuels, but this will not be easy because fossil fuels are needed to create a renewable energy system. The transition is likely to cause imbalances in the energy supplies, and this has many ramifications for the goods upon which we depend. Yes, we use energy to heat and cool our homes and businesses, but we also use energy to manufacture goods, transport goods, and produce food. We need to understand how much fossil energy our lifestyle requires. We must make drastic cuts in energy consumption if we are to create an economy that runs off renewable energy, particularly while we are building an entirely new system. If we cut fossil energy supplies too quickly, where will the energy and goods we need today come from?
Renewable energy sources such as wood, solar, wind, and water power are all driven by the sun’s energy which is free. To capture free renewable energy we rely on trees that produce wood, on the movement of the atmosphere that creates wind, and the water that falls from the sky to fill rivers and reservoirs. To capture sunlight and wind with technology to create electricity we rely on fossil energy to manufacture solar panels, turbines, etc. Solar panels and turbines will require large amounts of materials: metals, plastics, glass, etc. along with skilled labor, factories, transportation infrastructure, and energy to run it all. Installing renewable energy systems requires skilled labor and more materials and energy: metals for wire, cement/concrete for foundations, heavy equipment (for wind turbines), transportation, and financing. All of these things require a functioning economy and currently there is not enough existing renewable energy infrastructure to provide the energy we need.
The renewable energy transition will require a great deal of energy from our existing fossil energy system in order to mine the minerals, process them, transport them, and fabricate the materials we need. It will require more transportation and fabrication of finished products along with the roads, ports, airports that make up the distribution chain, and skilled labor to build and install these systems. Without fossil energy (and a functioning global economy) we cannot transition to renewable energy. We also need the social infrastructure to provide the education and living standards a skilled workforce needs. Without a functioning economy, without a functioning work force, supply chains, distribution networks, and financing we simply cannot make this transition.
The world is now caught between a rock and hard place, facing worsening weather disasters along with more expensive and limited supplies of resources. If we don’t make the transition all life on earth will suffer worsening impacts from climate change. If the earth’s atmosphere warms beyond 3o C, life as we know it will no longer be possible, the human, global civilization will collapse. Even if we were to miraculously discover ways to cheaply and efficiently remove and store carbon from the atmosphere, and could avoid additional emissions and rising temperatures, we will still run out of fossil energy in a matter of a few decades or a century, depending on how much fossil energy the earth holds under the arctic ice or whether we can safely harvest frozen methane from the sea bed. I’m not even going to argue the option to colonize Mars as a solution.
Fossil energy is not renewable. It was created hundreds of millions of years ago when the earth was much hotter and the land covered with swamps. Once we’ve extracted and burned as much fossil energy economically feasible, it will be gone. We will have burned through a finite resource to power a finite global economy, imagining progress would keep the system going forever. We also face the consequences of fossil fuel pollution. We’ve released too many toxins into our environment and it is affecting the health of all living creatures. Our agricultural and food supply industries are not only making us sick, they are wearing out our soil, and polluting surface water. We are degrading and destroying the renewable systems upon which life depends.
The paradox is that if humanity is to survive extinction we must create a low carbon ‘civilization’, yet we can’t do it with our current civilization. In time, the slow supply chains, diminished energy available, and inflation could eventually work in our favor, forcing us to change as prices rise. Unfortunately time is running out and severe weather is making the transition more difficult.
Early September we saw Hurricane Ida come ashore near New Orleans impacting oil and gas infrastructure. On October 3 a cyclone named Shaheen made a rare landfall in Oman. The storm dropped heavy rain (8 to 20″), three times the annual amount in some areas. It is difficult to say how much damage will be done. Storms such as these are impacting global energy supplies. A previous storm, Cyclone Gonu hit the same area in 2007 and “caused 50 deaths and about $4.2 billion in damage (2007 USD) in Oman, where the cyclone was considered the nation’s worst natural disaster. The liquefied natural gas terminal in Sur, which handles 10 million tonnes of gas each year, was badly hit by the storm and could not be operated.” The LNG terminal at Oman has since been expanded and now distributes much higher quantities of gas piped to the coast. “The LNG plant is supplied from the gas gathering plant at Saih Rowl in the central Oman gas field complex through a 360 kilometres (224 mi) pipeline with a capacity of 12 billion cubic meters per annum of gas. It is operated by Petroleum Development Oman. The gas originates from the Barik, Saih Nihayda and Saih Rawl gas fields.”
Whatever damage Cyclone Sheehan causes, the danger to oil and gas supplies cannot be overstated. We know storms are becoming stronger and threaten coastal infrastructure. For a multitude of reasons the world is experiencing the start of a global energy crisis. First gas and oil prices dropped at the beginning of the pandemic as economies shut down. Now economies have been reopening and energy supplies are not meeting needs. If storms hit important hubs of oil and gas distribution it will push already soaring energy prices higher, and result in even more intense competition for energy.
China is experiencing black outs, energy shortages, and the closing of factories as a result. The reduction in energy is causing a great deal of pain and suffering as well as a slow down of their economy. The Chinese government announced on Thursday that it will procure energy supplies at any cost in order to prevent black outs and heating fuel shortages this winter. This immediately caused prices to soar. Coal on the futures market reached historic levels closing at $234/ton on Friday. Natural gas prices in the US have already increased to $5.45/therm, twice as high as the middle of last winter. The US the media has been so focused this week on what is happening in Washington few news shows are carrying the story of energy shortages in UK, Europe, India, and China. Few Americans realize an energy crisis is unfolding and will likely spread globally.
“Demand for gas has soared as the post-pandemic recovery meets low inventories with stiff competition for supplies from Asian buyers -China, for example, is seeking more liquefied natural gas (LNG) cargoes despite record prices as its own winter season starts. ” If the winter temperatures are abnormally cold we can expect even higher prices.
Although some renewable energy is available, the world relies heavily on coal and natural gas to generate electricity. With prices for both rising quickly, France and the UK have announced they will cap utility price in order to shield consumers from high winter bills. Unfortunately if energy suppliers can’t pass on the cost to consumers they cannot afford to stay in business and many have announced bankruptcy.
I remember the historic energy crises of the oil embargo in the 1970’s. Most of us recall the surge in oil prices in 2008 to $140 per barrel, the financial crisis that followed and the Great Recession. In both cases, I don’t recall so many things going wrong so fast as they are right now. The world has faced a global pandemic, which seems difficult to overcome, and yet we must restart our economies because people rely on stores and shipping containers for the goods we consume. The economy is struggling with supply chain issues, labor shortages, shipping container shortages and America is being overcome by a party who refuses to acknowledge the winner of last election. We are witnessing a failure of democracy in America, and a struggle with China who wants to become the world’s leader.
The difficulty we face reminds me of the time I watched a very long train start moving. Three diesel engines slowly began to pull the chain of cars behind them. The linkages between the cars bumped and banged against each other in fits and starts, as the forward movement overcame inertia of several hundred fully loaded cars and tankers. The difference between starting a train and starting the global economy is that in the case of a train all the engines are pulling in the same direction and every car is forced to follow along. Also the engines have all the energy required and they don’t try to move too quickly. Slow and steady wins the race. This has not been the case with the developed nations of our world. Each is attempting to restart their economy, but we aren’t all pulling in the same direction, or at the same speed. Many nations are failing and people are being left behind with droughts and civil disorder increasing the movement of refugees. And then occasionally, we face an unusual storm that knocks cars off the track or reduces the supply of energy.
The consequence of higher energy costs is going to have serious ramifications for the world. It will likely take years, if ever, to recover. This may be the winter that will be the true test of our endurance; our willingness to deal with shortages, to ration energy, forced to pay more for the limited amount of things available. We may face the reality of an economic collapse far worse than the Great Depression, and we may never have the energy to recover.
Our ability to withstand or to recover from a weather or economic disasters is a measure of our resilience. We cannot know the future, all we can do is prepare for what we think might occur. We each assess the risk and plan accordingly. Denying risk exists, pretending they won’t affect us, or that someone will help us recover is not a good plan. Yes, we may get lucky, but we can’t plan for luck.
The liberal Western world order has long promoted human rights, demanding that no one be left behind, but nature doesn’t work that way. We are only able to help others when we have a surplus. Nature doesn’t reward bad decisions or excuse ignorance or bad planning. We are either prepared to deal with what comes or suffer the consequences. Nature isn’t vindictive, nor is it kind. It is simply the forces that govern the flow of mater and energy…the physical laws no one can escape.
Humanity has reached a narrow window of opportunity to make the changes that will help our species, our society survive. Yet few heed the warnings. Winter has normally been a season of deprivation. It is the season of limits. Cultures who lived through seasonal change understood the necessity of preparing for winter during summer. If they didn’t store enough food and fuel, winter would be cold and lean with much hunger. When drought, pestilence or disease killed crops and livestock in summer, people knew that winter would bring starvation. People had to make hard choices if they wanted to live to see another spring. Only modern humans have come to rely on surplus, to expect surplus. We’ve come to expect as a necessity, that the things we want and need will be made available. Life is about to upend our expectations.
This winter will be a true test of our civilization, for it is not just about overcoming the pandemic, it is not just inflation or stagflation, it is the availability of energy to power our entire civilization itself. For months economists have believed this period will pass as the global economy ramps back up and life goes back to normal. Now normal is moving rapidly away in our rear view mirror. Perhaps the children’s nursery rhyme “Humpty dumpty” has always been a cautionary tale. Sometimes things can be broken beyond repair.
The image in the header is my husband cleared snow from our 11 killowatt solar energy system last winter. The image above is our earth berm home.