The Only Way Forward: A Pedal-to-the-Metal Plan for Energy System Transformation – (Pt. 1 of 3)

By Michael Hoexter

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]

The largest-scale, most important and time-sensitive challenge facing humanity is the climate crisis.  The capitalist industrial societies of the last two hundred years and the command-and-control industrial economies of mid-20th Century Communist regimes are and were both premised on the idea that the environment is an infinitely capacious dumping ground for the physical by-products of industrial production and consumption.  One class of those byproducts that was overlooked in the first waves of concern about the environment in the 1960’s and 70’s, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, has turned out to be the most potentially damaging in the longer term and among the most difficult to bring under control.  One of the main difficulties in controlling greenhouse gases relative to other byproducts of industrial civilization is that greenhouse gases are not directly noxious to humans in concentrations that are dangerous to the stability of the climate.  Furthermore, over the course of two centuries, most of the newer consumer desires and the supposed efficiencies of the modern economy were built upon activities that with current technology rely on free-to-the-consumer-and-producer greenhouse-gas emissions, enjoyments which are not impaired by inhaling the gases themselves.  By contrast smog and soot were from early on considered noxious byproducts of fossil fuel use in industrial production (“the infernal mills”) and environmental regulation of these was, over a period of years, embraced by many as an unalloyed good.

Now the Holocene climate that has been so favorable for humanity is rapidly buckling under the effects of the heat trapped by the odorless and invisible greenhouse gases that humanity has pumped into the atmosphere and into the oceans.  There are signs that a far more unstable climate regime is taking its place with significant sea level rises endangering much of civilization and commerce.   Much more extreme heat waves are of course expected and have already occurred.  Extreme droughts and in other areas flooding are already a growing feature of weather reports throughout the world; what we consider to be extremes are becoming the new “climate”.   In addition, increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have led to the acidification of the ocean as carbon dioxide becomes carbonic acid when dissolved in water.  With ocean acidification comes the high likelihood of extinction of many of the sensitive flora and fauna of the ocean, life that has already adapted to millions of years of lower acidity.

The call has gone out from, one of the principled actors on the world stage with regard to climate, to keep at least 80% of the known fossil energy reserves in the ground, in order to avoid the catastrophic scenario of 4 to 6 degrees Celsius warming, a trajectory upon which we are now headed. has called this campaign “Do the Math”. The 80% figure is based on a calculation regarding how much more carbon can be emitted before atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide cross the 450 parts per million barrier.  Achievement of this objective would mean an end to the fossil fuel business as we know it as that industry would need to write off most of its known assets as well as the eternal hopes it entertains of still more fossil fuels to extract and sell.  This call to face the fossil fuel industry directly contrasts with two decades of focus upon cap and trade as a seemingly non-confrontational way to address climate change.  “Do the Math” and allied campaigns, in choosing various forms of direct action over a game of carbon “musical chairs”, is on the right track to preserving something like a human civilization.

But keeping fossil fuels in the ground and the focus on the fossil fuel industry alone leaves one with the impression that our energy problem is largely limited to a number of bad actors in the world, most of whom work for, support, or lobby for the fossil fuel industry.  I believe this focus oversimplifies the ethical, political and economic challenge facing humanity.  In the broadest sense of the word, all people who live in the developed world and many in the developing world are “supporting” the fossil fuel industry as long as fossil fuels remain the major means by which civilization is powered and which enables most of our enjoyments.  By being a customer, directly or indirectly, of a fossil fuel company, creating demand for their products, we are supporting that industry as well as contributing to warming and therefore disrupting the climate.  The fossil fuel industry has the most at stake and has abundant financial and political resources, but it also relies on our passivity, our intent and exclusive focus on our own pleasures, and our ignorance about what must come next.

To complete the mission of “Do the Math”, another set of calculations is required, a math that replaces much of the primary energy derived currently from fossil energy with clean non-emitting sources, which will largely be renewable energy (I am in favor of research into supposedly cleaner, more advanced forms of nuclear power but I am skeptical of the wildly optimistic claims made by their advocates).  In addition and crucially important, there are ways to use less energy overall with the same or greater convenience to humanity, by deliberate, energy-conscious design of mechanical equipment, buildings, cities, and transportation networks.  Major non-governmental organizations and private companies, have researched and calculated where these “tranches” of clean energy, energy savings, as well as reduced emissions from land use changes may come from.

Beyond these research efforts that are ongoing, what is indisputable is that this transition MUST happen for there to be a fair chance that the earth will remain habitable for humanity as we have evolved over the millenia.  With the knowledge that the fossil fuel age must end soon, to dwell upon the contrary or to deny the possibility of achieving these goals is to either give in to despair for future generations, to defend the privilege of the few and the current generation’s wasteful ways, and/or to engage in (indirectly self-defeating) baiting and back-biting of those who are trying to save a recognizable civilization for humanity.

Working on a rapid transition to a post-carbon economy is therefore an imperative for all people of good will.  It may in fact have something close to the status of Kant’s “categorical imperative” upon which he thought all morality should be based.  Firstly, it is clearly immoral for the current generation to destroy or greatly diminish the habitability of the earth for future generations.  Secondly, our societies and conceptions of the good life have come to be predicated on the use of large amounts of non-food energy by various machines, powered by the wind, sun, water, geothermal heat, biomass combustion or metabolism (by work animals), fossil fuels, and nuclear energy.  Even if a simpler life than the current “ideal” life of the comfortable and the wealthy in the developed world is a better life, still it would make sense to rescue at least some of the good that mechanized, supplemental-energy-powered civilization has achieved or might achieve in the future.   That mechanized and now digitally-connected world provides us with the means, at least, to communicate over vast distances, bringing more of humanity into dialogue with each other and potentially a more inclusive view of and more effective cooperation within the human community.

Conceptions of the Good Society and Technological Change

The required transformation of society to one based on a post-carbon technological infrastructure is an enormous undertaking that must happen speedily and has inspired some to impose their own pre-existing social utopias upon their vision of the future new clean-energy order.  While the carbon gradualist approach of some sectors of our current elite is inadequate to the task of the needed rapid transition to a post-carbon energy system, it avoids to some degree the imposition of a very specific social vision of an ideal future state upon the present.  If carbon gradualism has a utopia it is a technocratic utopia where leisurely adjustments in carbon pricing policy will master the hard problem of transitioning to a post-carbon energy infrastructure.   In the gradualist utopian scenario, these adjustments will avoid direct confrontation with an intransigent fossil fuel industry as it struggles to defend its privileged position.  This technocratic vision does not sketch out the goal but simply makes “tweaks” to the existing economy along the way.

With the rapidity of the transition required, as I have argued previously, we will need to start with a basic sketch or “design” for the zero-carbon society based on existing technologies and plausible developments of those technologies.  This requires then some form of vision or plan for the future.  However, many with pre-existing visions of a social utopia have congregated to the climate issue and present versions of their utopia as the standard vision that we all should pursue.  Technological utopians are also attracted to the issue as well, and sometimes they compel or distract with their visions of plausible and not-so-plausible future technologies.

In the category of social visions, one common set of approaches might be called “neo-primitivism”, within which there is a broad spectrum of views.  When I use the word “neo-primitivist” I do not mean to be dismissive out of hand of these ideas, but only to point out that they seek their inspiration in the human past.  Some of the most common and milder forms of neo-primitivist ideas are versions of E.F. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” idea.  In the past, the dimensions of society were “smaller” and thus Schumacher and those who carry on his ideas may be viewed as engaging in direct or indirect forms of nostalgia.  The conviction, for instance, that distributed energy is superior to large-scale energy generation, is one such neo-primitivist idea (and not necessarily “wrong”).  The idea that being a “locavore” is of necessity more virtuous than eating foods from further away, is another example of mild neo-primitivism (it is easier to be a locavore in California rather than in more inhospitable climate zones).

More radical neo-primitivists are those who promulgate the idea of a necessary collapse of civilization or even a “die-off”, after which a more small-scale, more “primitive” society would develop.  These people are pessismistic about the prospects of large-scale civilization and maybe are actively hostile to it, inclusive of advocating or committing terrorist acts in the name of “Nature”.

While neo-primitivists are justified in asserting that earlier societies used less natural resources and emitted less greenhouse gases, their insistence that modernity in all its forms is necessarily a dead end for humanity is a product of personal and social preferences.  They are fatalistic about the adaptability of human beings to the energy and climate challenge, even though those humans have adapted themselves in the last hundred years to the modern society they criticize.   Why would human adaptation and human abilities be frozen in such a way as to support neo-primitivist preferences and not someone else’s preferences?  The climate crisis or other large-scale environmental issue becomes an excuse to talk about and argue for their social utopias which remain largely unchanged by the massive, new challenge of climate change for society as a whole.  In other words, this is a matter of asserting “the old time religion”, which may or may not address reality as it unfolds but offers reassuring guideposts for adherents.

Capitalism, the Growth Imperative and Socialism

While the command-and-control state-run economies of the former Eastern bloc were wasteful of natural resources, capitalism’s growth imperative and the current hegemony of capitalism within the world economy are now the predominant drivers of continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions.  In addition, capitalism’s need for growth to survive is also a driver of other forms of reckless disregard for the planet’s regenerative capacity.  Anyone who thinks for long about sustainability realizes that capitalism’s drive for unending growth will run up against the limits of a finite planet.  In addition, the growth imperative for capital, will require that forms of human conviviality and natural systems that cannot be accumulated in their current forms as private capital be disorganized so that they can then be assimilated into capital.  We are seeing this now in the mad rush to privatize public institutions.

The characterization of this process as “creative destruction” via Schumpeter is all-too flattering of this aspect of capitalism as it excuses each instance of destruction of natural systems, an existing way of life or business as necessarily “creative” and therefore a form of progress.  Because of the long-lived and mounting effects of greenhouse gases emitted now and in the past, the carbon emissions and global warming challenge is just the most critical of a number of challenges related to uncontrolled growth of the human footprint on the face of the earth, driven in part by our capitalist economic system.

But we also cannot expect to transform our entire social and economic system in the span of a few short years, especially as we do not have a social blueprint for a complete, different and better social system.  Currently neither intellectuals via the creation of new discourse nor non-intellectuals via “voting with their feet” are showing the way to a new more sustainable society.  The Marxist formulation of a working class that leads the way has not turned out to be the case in most actual and not particularly successful revolutions in the past.  Revolutionary takeovers of society have overturned existing social orders but have not been successful at building new vibrant “means of production” and reproduction of social life.  This suggests that a simple negation of the current status quo or inversion of social pyramid without a further understanding will not lead to a sustainable and just society.  We have not arrived at an adequate grasp of the dynamics of our society, of the human animal, of the critically important instrument of government and the design of our economy to enable a full-scale social transition within the span of time in which we need to act.  Furthermore even if this formulation of what constitutes a better, functional society were ready-made, this leaves out the task of making such an understanding, once created, a broadly shared vision among the populace.

The traditional opponents to capitalism, socialism, Marxism and/or Communism, have only seen a slight revival in the form of calls for eco-socialism as a solution to the ills of society. While the current market-fundamentalist neoliberal order is decaying into a grotesque form of corrupt neofeudalism, a purely socialist alternative has not emerged with a clear vision, appreciable strength or following.  The Communist state-run economies of the mid-20th Century generally were able to provide for a bare minimum of basic set of human needs but allowed very little room for individual freedoms, leading to an oppressive political system and a deformation of interpersonal relationships on a microscopic level and of political life on a macroscopic level.  While “socialism” is a broader category than just the Communist command economies, there are, as of yet, no compelling and data-grounded solutions to the current impasse emerging from self-proclaimed socialists.

Despite the critical edge of the above description of how social utopian ideas, both neo-primitivist and traditionally left-wing, drive discussions of the near- and long-term technological future, it is also not wrong to expect and even demand fundamental socio-economic change accompanying the large-scale technological transformation required to create and arrive at a post-carbon society.  Technologies, especially large complex ones inclusive of built infrastructure, have embedded within them a certain set of social institutional arrangements that are required for their operation or the enjoyment of their products; technological change will change social arrangements.   The scale of transformation to a post-carbon society, let alone a completely sustainable one, is enormous: this will not be a “surgical strike” into existing, for the most part, capitalist societies, a technological “implant” or “transplant” that leaves social relations and hierarchies intact.

I will present then the below plan for technological transformation as offering various affordances (i.e. “handles”) for social and economic change but not allowing a particular set of social preferences to dictate the exact terms of the plan.  Some will then argue that I am putting forth a to-them “non-ideal” element or plan, if what I present doesn’t conform to their favored solution either on a technological or social standpoint.  Alternatively what I am presenting here might not favor their immediate economic interests or their perception of those interests.  I will risk that for the sake of offering the plan behind which many can unify, with the highest likelihood of success and with the least amount of distracting “baggage”.

The Pedal-to-the-Metal Plan


1)    No revolutionary technological innovations required but evolutionary improvements expected

2)    Self-interested economic actors (people, businesses, government representatives) with some interest in community well-being and well-being of future generations (modification of Homo Economicus)

3)    Government as the primary force that has the potential to represent and institutionalize community/national/international values in the economy

Physical Principles:

1)    Base as much supplementary,  non-food (“exosomatic”) energy on renewable energy flows as possible

2)    Reduce energy required per unit effective work that serves human ends (energy efficiency and conservation)

3)    Use electricity as the energy carrier of choice (as opposed to biofuels or hydrogen) for most applications

4)    Where applicable for energy system applications, increase growing biomass and therefore carbon fixing capacity on cultivated and uncultivated lands.

Technological Goals:

1)    Electrify land-based transportation and machines

  1. Shift long-distance freight transport to electrified rail or electrified grid-charged or powered trucks.  Build out rail infrastructure to allow modal shift to rail versus road.
  2. Shift freight and passenger fleets to battery electric transportation with battery swap or in-motion inductive charging capability.
  3. Build high speed rail, electrified express rail or equivalently rapid electrified public transit between major cities to replace much short and middle distance air travel.
  4. Shift high traffic public transportation routes to electrified commuter rail, light rail, subway, elevated rail, trolleybus, street car or electric bus.
  5. Build electric vehicle charging infrastructure in multifamily, single family residences, office parking facilities and public streets
  6. Build rapid charge, roadway charging, and/or battery swap infrastructure to facilitate electric vehicle travel over middle and longer distances.
  7. Increase electrical energy storage performance by a factor of 2 per decade
  8. Facilitate transition from self-driven to programmable computer driven autonomous vehicles (increasing capacity of existing road infrastructure and reducing emissions)

2)    Generate electricity via renewable energy

  1. Build rooftop and building integrated solar
  2. Build transmission infrastructure to internetwork wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric facilities across regional boundaries to balance energy flow
  3. Build large scale renewable generation plants in areas where renewable energy flows correspond with electricity demand while minimizing impacts on vistas and natural habitats where possible.
  4. Build distributed and centralized electrical energy storage facilities

3)    Explore potentially safer, alternative nuclear generation designs

  1. Build and test prototypes for cleaner and (weapons) proliferation-resistant nuclear energy via alternative designs to light water reactors (Thorium reactors, etc.)

4)    Reduce energy demand with equivalent useful work or outcome

  1. Build new buildings to the passive house standard reducing or eliminating the need for space-conditioning energy
  2. Retrofit existing buildings to the passive house standard where possible.
  3. Build suburban and urban areas more densely, reducing the required number of passenger-miles and vehicle-miles traveled, facilitating walking, biking and public transit use via appropriate street design.
  4. Encourage, by design, shared infrastructure and durable goods use, to increase capacity utilization.
  5. Decrease demand for transportation by increasing Internet broadband capacity to enable high bandwidth virtual (eventually holographic) communication to become more visually more realistic and accessible to the public.
  6. Facilitate the development of novel energy efficient solutions via energy pricing policy (see below).

5)    Eliminate petroleum fuel in air travel and freight

  1. Transition to biofueled or hydrogen-fueled air transport

6)    Transition to non-fossil fueled marine propulsion

  1. Implement hybrid marine propulsion systems that reduce fuel consumption by implementing modern sail technology
  2. Transition to hydrogen and biofueled mechanical marine propulsion systems

7)    Store atmospheric carbon in buildings, durable goods and infrastructure

  1. Encourage engineered wood use in buildings and manufactured goods.
  2. Reduce concrete and steel components in durable infrastructure and buildings where structurally possible

8)    Build fossil fuel-independent food production, processing and transportation infrastructure

  1. Develop, manufacture and distribute mechanical cultivation and harvesting equipment powered by on-farm or near-farm renewable energy
  2. Develop non-fossil-fuel powered freight system that enables timely transportation of foods to market.
  3. Develop locally grown food production where feasible to increase variety of food species and food system resilience.
  4. Build water efficient irrigation systems

9)    Reduce, reuse and recycle society’s waste and waste water stream

  1. Reduce packaging where possible
  2. Encourage use of recyclables and recycled materials for single use products
  3. Develop compost waste infrastructure and collections to minimize methane release from waste stream.
  4. For remaining waste stream, build high temperature waste to energy power plants that do not form dioxins or emit toxic gases.
  5. Reduce water use to lowest feasible levels in sanitation systems/build black water to potable water systems where water is imported or desalinated
  6. Build grey water systems for sanitation systems in buildings