Our Renewable Future

Introduction

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Homo sapiens are thought to have undergone three major energy transitions previously: 1) the discovery of fire; 2) the agricultural revolution; and 3) the fossil fuel (industrial) revolution. It’s quite possible the renewable energy transition will be the fourth such major energy transformation. Photo credit: Wikimedia and Shutterstock.com.

Historically, major changes to energy systems have also led to enormous economic and political shifts. This suggests the renewable energy transition will entail much more than simply replacing coal power plants with solar panels and wind turbines. This raises some profound questions. For example:

  • How will our food system evolve as we reduce fossil fuel inputs?
  • Who will be the economic winners and losers from the energy transition?
  • Will a renewable future be more equitable or less equitable?
  • Are our current governing institutions capable of managing the energy transition?
  • What changes to our homes and public buildings can we anticipate?

Post Carbon Institute explored these and other key questions about our renewable future with experts in a number of relevant fields: food, justice, consumerism, the economy, buildings & communities, and technology. These conversations—conducted live via webcast, with audience participation—were not meant to provide the answers, but rather surface promising ideas, proven models, and most important, get us all thinking.

We want to hear your thoughts. What questions do you have about the #renewablefuture? What’s your vision for fossil fuel free food…transportation…the economy…etc.?

Food

While its slice of the overall energy pie may seem relatively low, the modern American food system is figuratively awash in fossil fuels. On average, roughly 12 calories of (mostly fossil fuel) energy go into producing just one calorie of the food that we consume.

Since our current food system is so heavily dependent on fossil fuels, major changes to agriculture, farm labor, food processing, food transport, and food packaging are likely as we move toward the renewable future. The transition to 100% renewable energy thus raises some profound questions for the future of our food system. For instance:

  • What would a future farm without fossil fuels look like?
  • How might the rest of the food system—transport, packaging, processing, food choices—evolve as we eliminate fossil fuels?
  • What are the realistic opportunities for renewable energy in biomass-to-electricity or biofuels?
  • What are the opportunities for capturing and storing carbon in soils, forests, and grazing land?
  • Do GMOs have relevance for the food-energy transition, either as positive tools for change or as problems and threats?
  • Where can we look for a useful example of either a complete post-fossil food system, or a system that has at least dealt already with some of the major issues?

Live Discussion: Food After Fossil Fuels

On July 20, 2016, Asher Miller from Post Carbon Institute was joined by Michael Bomford (Kwantlen Polytechnic University) and Tom Philpott (Mother Jones) for an engaging, expansive conversation about what the future of the food system and agriculture might look like in a 100% renewable energy future. The recording can be viewed below.


Click here to view the chat transcript.
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Justice

Access to energy confers wealth—and power. As our energy system goes through a profound transformation away from fossil fuels, there will no doubt be winners and losers. The transition to 100% renewable energy raises profound questions for the future of justice and equity, including:

  • What needs to happen in order for the renewable energy future to be more just, and not less just, than the present?
  • What kinds of government policies or grassroots efforts will lead to more equity?
  • The transition to renewable energy will certainly be disruptive economically. What might that mean for the social and political power of currently disadvantaged populations?

On November 10, 2016, Asher Miller from Post Carbon Institute was joined by Miya Yoshitani (Asian Pacific Environmental Network) and Timothy Den-Herder Thomas (Cooperative Energy Futures) for a thoughtful exploration about how to ensure the renewable energy future is more just than the fossil fuel present. The recording can be viewed below.


Click here to view the Live Chat transcript.

This conversation was one of a number of discussions Post Carbon Institute has hosted with experts in various sectors to explore the post fossil-fuel future. You can watch recordings and sign up for upcoming discussions by visiting OurRenewableFuture.org.

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Consumerism

The creation of the consumer economy—a complex, interconnected system of institutions, goals, rewards, and punishments—was one of the great social projects of the twentieth century, when energy was cheaply abundant and two of our chief economic problems were overproduction and unemployment. The transition to 100% renewable energy raises some key questions for the future of consumer culture and consumption-based economies. For instance:

  • What are the prospects of the consumer economy in this century, when we are changing our energy sources and also dealing with climate change, water scarcity, resource depletion, and overpopulation?
  • How will we create jobs if we’re not constantly expanding consumption?
  • What’s the future of advertising?
  • What are some of the best practices related to reducing consumption and waste that can serve as models as we move forward?

Live Discussion: Consumerism After Fossil Fuels

On June 30, 2016, Asher Miller and Richard Heinberg from Post Carbon Institute were joined by Annie Leonard (Greenpeace and Story of Stuff) and John de Graaf (Take Back Your Time, The Happiness Alliance) for a lively, free-flowing conversation about what the future of consumerism might look like in a 100% renewable energy future. The recording can be viewed below.


Click here to view the chat transcript.

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The Economy

All economic activity entails energy usage. As our energy sources change, our economy will likely evolve and adapt—perhaps in surprising ways. The transition to 100% renewable energy raises profound questions for the future of our economy including:

  • Can capitalism as we know it survive in the era of climate change and energy transition?
  • What do you think it would take to ensure a just and relatively smooth economic transition?
  • What economies appear to be adapting best to our climate and energy challenges?
  • What practical/concrete things can we do — particularly in the current economic and political climate — to support the transition to a sustainable economy?

On December 13, 2016, Asher Miller from Post Carbon Institute was joined by Richard Heinberg (also of Post Carbon Institute), Rob Dietz, former Executive Director of Center for Advancement of a Steady State Economy and author of Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources and Joshua Farley, Fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and co-author (with Herman Daly) of the foundation textbook Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications to discuss how our economy might look and be in a 100% renewable energy future. The recording can be viewed below.


Click here to view the Live Chat transcript.

This conversation was one of a number of discussions Post Carbon Institute hosted with experts in various sectors to explore the post fossil-fuel future. You can watch recordings by visiting OurRenewableFuture.org.

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Communities and Infrastructure

Transportation accounts for over 40% of U.S. energy end use, and over 95% of that transportation runs on oil. Lighting, heating and cooling buildings also consumes an enormous amount of energy, much (but not all) of it powered by electricity. But we can’t simply replace all our cars with electric models, convert all our furnaces and air conditioners to electric heat pumps, and power it all with massive amounts of new renewable energy. Instead, the renewable future will require deep rethinking of how we design our communities and build the infrastructure that serves them.

The transition to 100% renewable energy raises profound questions for the future of our communities and infrastructure, including:

  • Can we produce enough renewable energy to power all the cars and trucks we have today? If not, how should our transportation system change? And what does that mean for land use patterns?
  • What infrastructure—from highways to power lines—do we need for a 100% renewable future? What infrastructure can be retrofitted, and what needs to be built new?
  • We know how to build net-positive-energy buildings; but what will it take make the entire building stock net-positive? Is it possible to construct building using only renewable energy?
  • Are the architecture, construction, engineering, and planning industries getting ready for a 100% renewable future? Is local government?

Live Discussion: Communities and Infrastructure in a 100% Renewable World

On July 27, 2016, Post Carbon Institute Publications Director Daniel Lerch was joined by Alicia Daniels Uhlig (International Living Future Institute) and Post Carbon Fellows Hillary Brown (City College of New York), and Warren Karlenzig (Common Current) for an engaging, expansive conversation about what the future of communities and infrastructure might look like in a 100% renewable energy future. The recording can be viewed below.


Click here to view the chat transcript.

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Technology and Communications

Modern communications systems send information across vast distances in massive quantities at breathtaking speeds. Every sector of the economy depends on the capture, access, and rapid transmission of information: from stock market quotes to weather forecasts; from orders for replacement parts for the electricity grid to requisitions for restocking supermarket shelves. End-use communications devices such as computers, phones, televisions, and radios rely upon behind-the-scenes infrastructures of wires, fiber-optic cables, routers, servers, broadcasting stations and antennae, and cell towers. All of this technology represents embodied energy and requires operational energy.

The transition to 100% renewable energy thus raises some profound questions for the future of technology and communications. For instance:

  • Can we make technology that’s carbon neutral? What would that look like? Would we still be replacing it with a new model every few years?
  • How can we substitute the direct inputs of oil and natural gas in the manufacturing of technology devices?
  • How can we source the thousands of raw metals and other elements that go into the formation of technology components, without the use of fossil fuels?
  • How will technology companies (and other businesses reliant on constantly evolving technology) shift their business models away from planned obsolescence?
  • How can renewable energy technology, itself, be entirely self-supported?
  • What companies are doing the best job of reducing carbon emissions and toxic waste in manufacturing electronics?
  • What nations or communities are doing the most to make modern communications climate-friendly?

Live Discussion: Technology and Communications After Fossil Fuels

On August 17, 2016 Asher Miller from Post Carbon Institute was joined by Douglas Rushkoff, recent author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Casey Harrell of Citizen’s Engagement Lab’s Climate Lab and Richard Heinberg (also of Post Carbon Institute) for an engaging, compelling conversation about what the future of technology and communication might look like in a 100% renewable energy future, The recording can be viewed below.

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What Do You Think?

The transition to a 100% renewable energy future is both inescapable and urgent. It demands action at all scales and the participation of everyone. But to achieve this goal as rapidly, equitably, and sustainably as possible must begin with asking the right questions and unearthing new ideas.

We want to hear from you. What’s your vision for the fossil fuel free future? What questions or issues… about food, the economy, culture, transportation, buildings, justice and equity, etc…. do you think are the most pressing?

Share your thoughts and questions by using the hashtag #renewablefuture on Twitter or send us a direct message.

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