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The world is running on a finite amount of non-renewable resources, and while they may be cheap to capture and use, they come at a heavy price. By relying on these resources to power our businesses and way of life, we sacrifice the guarantee of a stable future.
The truth is, the resources will run out, and companies that fail to adapt to the renewable energy market will suffer severely. But, we must understand that the renewable energy sector as we know it today isn’t full-proof.
Together, we must understand our energy consumption habits and make conscious decisions that not only increase the sustainability of our maintenance and reliability programs, but that of the “green” market at large. Only by doing this can we begin a true green transformation and create lasting stability within our industry.
The exponential increase in the gross domestic product (GDP) we’ve experienced since the beginning of the 19th century (see Figure 1) is because we’ve built machines that transform energy into power and put them at our service, giving us the ability to literally become “Iron Men”.
From your smartphone and laundry machine to the gigantic mining trucks and shovels used by industries globally, we have exponentially multiplied our productivity over the course of two centuries.
Now, let’s have a look at the amount of energy it takes to be Iron Men:
The correlation between Figures 1 and 3 enables us to establish the following equation:
GDP = F x Energy
“F” being a function of factors such as energy prices, inflation, and productivity for a specific country.
As we can see in Figure 3, after World War II, we have been using energy that is inexpensive to extract and store such as coal, oil, and gas. Our EROI (Energy Return on Investment) was incredible during the 1950s – the energy contained in one barrel of conventional oil would let you power machines that could collect 50 barrels of that same oil.
But it’s crucial to remember that, for the time being, there is a limited amount of fossil fuels remaining – and if you take, for example, the total quantity of oil that is economically acceptable to extract (with a minimum EROI of 1:5, let’s say), you will reach a maximum and then decrease.
And what is true for oil is also true for coal and gas, as well as iron, copper, nickel, lithium, cobalt, and all other non-renewable resources used in electric and electronic components.
We all must acknowledge a fundamental fact – for the time being, there is a limited amount of fossil fuels remaining. Because of this, it is recognized globally that we must transition from fossil fuels, which constitute 80% of our current global mix, to renewable and green energy sources.
This understanding has led to an impressive expansion in the green marketplace, which has brought about everything from wind turbines for producing green energy to electric vehicles that can run off this new energy supply.
However, this movement comes at a price. To build these green machines, we have to use not only non-renewable energy but resources as well.
In other words, when you consider a product’s full life cycle, there is currently no such thing as a net-zero wind turbine or electric vehicle, and there probably never will be. Replacing all the motor cars, trucks, and cargo ships with net-zero options seems quite difficult (some might say impossible), especially if you keep in mind our economic paradigm of ever-increasing growth and its intrinsic relationship with energy (GDP = F x Energy).
Of course, automation, computers, robotics, and data analytics can help us optimize our energy consumption. But look closely at Figure 4; each industrial revolution was in fact a formidable opportunity to boost productivity as well as GDP, hence the increase in energy consumption.
So, as EROIs have shown, our world is experiencing an energy contraction, and we must embrace the fact that the upcoming years will be years of energy and resource sobriety.
As resources and non-renewable energies become less available in the upcoming 25 years, turbulence is expected, including disruptions to the supply chain of raw materials, manufactured goods, and energy.
In these situations, resilient organizations will be the ones most likely to survive. To be one of these remaining companies, we may need to consider:
To be implemented properly, these measures will require a deep cultural shift, and this can take nearly half a decade to do properly. Not only will this depend on the will of industry leaders, but also politicians, the media, and public figures.
Operations will also need to be as reliable as possible, with a strong focus on:
These measures are asset and process focused and only take a few years to implement. Successful implementation depends on the will of industry leaders as well as their providers and partners.
Believing that we can expect GDP to continuously grow while simultaneously reducing our energy consumption and carbon footprint seems unrealistic. Instead, we need to figure out how we can reduce our energy and resource needs in order to live with what we already have.
Humanity is smart, and it might even invent revolutionary technologies or sources of green energy that will solve all our problems. In the meantime, let’s guide our industries toward resilience and continue to consolidate the fundamental elements of their reliability and maintenance programs.
This article wouldn’t have been possible without my reading of the works of engineers Philippe Bihouix and Jean-Marc Jancovici over the past years. I highly encourage readers who are interested in learning more about energy-related topics to read their books. A respectful thank you to both.