There is no green bullet that will allow various alternative energy and efficiency technologies to replace fossil fuels, which are in shorter supply than most people will acknowledge, according to a report from a six-year-old California think tank, the Post Carbon Institute, and a more mature International Forum on Globalization (IFG), founded in the early 1990s in San Francisco. As a result, the world generally has far less time than is currently thought for an energy “transition” period, an official with the institute told NGI Friday.

“Searching for a Miracle — ‘Net Energy’ Limits and the Fate of Industrial Society,” by Richard Heinberg, one of 28 fellows at the Post Carbon Institute headquartered in a San Francisco suburb, is aimed at “furthering the discussion” in the public policy arena about the combination of energy, economic and environmental policies now being pursued, according to Tod Brilliant, the institute’s spokesman.

“The fundamental disturbing conclusion of the report is that there is little likelihood that either conventional fossil fuels or alternative energy sources can reliably be counted on to provide the amount and quality of energy that will be needed to sustain economic growth — or even current levels of economic activity — during the rest of the current century,” Heinberg writes in the overview section of his report.

“This preliminary conclusion in turn suggests that a sensible transition energy plan will have to emphasize energy conservation above all. It also raises questions about the sustainability of growth per se, both in terms of human population numbers and economic activity.”

Is this intended to be a giant wake-up call for public policy wonks and elected officials? “That’s a really good way to put it,” said Brilliant, who added that the institute is sustained by numerous donors who are concerned about energy and the environment and their sustainability. IFG founder Jerry Mander “is sort of a ‘wake-up’ kind of guy.”

Brilliant said that both sponsoring organizations want to use Heinberg’s analytical work to more extensively introduce the concept of “net energy” to the ongoing discussions about climate change, energy and environmental issues so assessments about the deployment of new energy sources will be undertaken “more realistically and not pie-in-the-sky.”

“By more realistically I mean determining the real costs of unveiling an entire new energy infrastructure. These things are talked about, but too loosely.”

In his report Heinberg acknowledged that net energy has its shortcomings and many analysts reject it as too broad and all-encompassing. He writes that it is “not the only important criterion for assessing a potential energy source.” But he places it as “one of five criteria” that should help determine what energy sources are developed in the future.

Heinberg’s other key criteria are renewability, environmental impact, resource size and the need for ancillary resources and materials. “If a potential energy source cannot score well with all five of these criteria, it cannot realistically be considered as a future primary energy source,” he wrote.

For the future, some of the members of the Post Carbon Institute want to attempt to quantify the net energy approach “so as we move forward we will be able to take an informed look at what the best options really are,” said Brilliant.

“There will be a little bit of a brouhaha around all this because on the surface, the report seems to be saying ‘don’t waste your time’ [with alternative energy], but instead what we are really trying to do is just further the discussion as rapidly as possible. We’re not afraid at all of being wrong as long as the conversation is substantiative.”

No technological silver bullet is likely to save the planet, Brilliant said.

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