Life After Fossil Fuels

Life after Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy, Alice J Friedemann, Springer, Lecture Notes in Energy 81, 2020, ISBN 978-3-030-70334-9 , https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783030703349

One of the essential web sites for those interested in issues of energy and climate is Alice Friedemann’s Energy Skeptic (www.energyskeptic.com) at which she presents detailed, meticulously researched and referenced evaluations of energy and environmental issues and extensive summaries and reviews of key books in the field.  Alice focuses very much on the ecological crises that we face through our use of fossil fuels, and on issues arising from constraints in their supply and declining energy return on energy invested (EROEI).

In addition to the blog, Alice writes books on the same topic.  Her 2016 book “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation” explored the dependence of transportation, especially freight transport, on petroleum and the difficulties that will be encountered in trying to substitute alternative energy sources for oil.  In ‘Life After Fossil Fuels’ she develops further the arguments in ‘When Trucks Stop Running’, extending the analysis to issues of manufacturing and materials, among others, and providing in particular a detailed evaluation of the possibilities of using biomass and biofuels and a substitute for fossil fuels.

Life After Fossil Fuels is a relatively short book, at about 200 pages, and comprises 33 easy to read chapters, each typically 4 or 5 pages excluding the extensive references that are provided throughout.  It is written in an accessible style, for a general reader. Friedemann first explains how we use fossil fuels in today’s societies, how it follows from a dependence on wood before fossil fuel use began in earnest, and the predicament that we face as supply and/or demand falls, especially of oil.  She notes the current very strong interest in the impacts of fossil fuel use of climate, but stresses that she sees constraints in the supply of fuels (and other resources) as a challenge of similar magnitude.  She then explores the potential for alternative sources of energy for those aspects of our lives and economies currently dependent on fossil fuels, especially including transportation, manufacturing and materials production. She concludes that for many applications (especially long-distance transportation and materials) the most suitable substitute is biomass, which she then proceeds to damn with faint praise, exploring in a number of chapters the challenges of the various bio fuels and other biomass alternatives from corn ethanol and wood gas to algae and kelp derived fuels.  While biomass and biofuels may be the most suitable substitute for fossil fuels, it is clear that they will not be available in quantities necessary to maintain our current energy debauchery.

Life After Fossil Fuels is not an optimistic book.  At the end, Friedemann states “This book essentially is a reality check of where energy will come from in the future. It has not been an easy read”.  She concludes that “The best way to manage our energy decline is to accept its inevitability and to embrace the challenge of transitioning to a simpler world”, suggesting that one of the few up sides may be that reduced supplies of fossil fuels will pull us back from the most pessimistic predictions of greenhouse gas emissions.  Freidemann makes her case well, supporting each chapter with numerous references.  Whether or not you share her pessimism, her message is an important one that deserves widespread discussion and debate.

In the final chapter, Friedemann makes suggestions for what a simpler world might look like: radical changes in transportation, in our cities and economies, conservation of farmland and more diverse agriculture, planting of trees, planting of wetlands and more.  In this regard Friedemann is another voice calling for a simplification, a pulling back from endless growth.  Perhaps as we emerge from the restrictions imposed by Covid there might be a more widespread enthusiasm for adopting such an approach but on recent experience it does not seem to be likely.

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