The confusing scale of things

26-02-2016

Petajoules, megatonnes, megawatts, cargo shipments, cubic metres, barrels of oil and one percentage after the other: measures for energy use, energy saving and emission reduction are expressed in a chaotic jumble of units in study after study.

Usually, there is no real indication of large or small, much or little, substantial or insignificant; in short, politicians and most certainly the average taxpayer and voter hardly have a sense of the scale of things. And this can easily lead to misunderstandings, misconceptions and disappointments. As a result, comparing the transition and preservation options in debates and policies is like comparing apples with pears, which are evidently different, although many people think they are dealing with apples and apples.

In respect of the time scale in which measures are achievable, the plans also differ significantly, without explaining the reason why. The Energy Report, which anticipates as yet unknown innovations, seems to also assume that there will be an unknown success after an unknown period of time. Making all residential areas more sustainable by the use of solar power, wind, biogas, geothermal energy and heat pumps in a country like the Netherlands takes decades, certainly considering the current pace of construction of new houses. Getting the manufacturing industry to switch from oil and gas to biofuels will not be finished “in time for Christmas”, to say nothing about the maritime sector and aviation. Even though solar panels can be placed within in a week, their energy impact is small. 
 
A little more attention should be paid to the scale of the costs when presenting the various alternatives. The electrification of hundreds of residential areas, the creation of hundreds of kilometres of heat networks, building hydrogen units at wind and solar parks, bringing in bulk shipments of biomass from all over the world, building gasification and fermentation installations, insulating properties and factories will cost tens or perhaps even hundreds of billions of Euros.

The last scale of confusion is the geographical distribution and impact of the transition measures. Not rarely have local sustainable initiatives, although meant well, had very negative effects elsewhere in the world: deforestation, unemployment, scarcity of raw materials and drought. Assessing where in the world our scarce Euros have the most impact, seems to play no role: the national objective, the national budget and the money spent nationally, unfortunately, seem to be what matters. To achieve sensible and positive effects on a global scale, appears to be a “hell of a job”. The scope of the measures, the time and money required and the regional impact should be better assessed, to finally be able to compare our extremely urgent transition efforts and make wise decisions. Only the Richter scale causes less confusion in the Netherlands at the moment...

Jan Hendrik Annema, GasTerra
(Manager Dutch Gas Purchase)