Scott Tinker: Can The World Energy Supply Become Fully Sustainable?

As we claim often here at Energy is everything.

Will our global society be able to transtiton off of its extreme dependence on fossil fuels? And if so, can we do so without too much pain?

Scott Tinker is the Director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin, and founder of the non-profit Switch Energy Alliance, which is dedicated to helping humanity address these key questions.

Tinker remains confident a much better future energy-wise is possible; but will require a tremendous shift in behavoir, investment and technological innovation.

In his eyes, society can make the transition. But will it? That’s a lot less certain…

The transition I care about is not simply from one kind of energy to another. It's to where everybody has affordable, available, reliable, and environmentally sustainable, secure energy. That's a good transition.

That introduces things into the world that allows for the empowerment of women, education, and all the basic things that the modern world enjoys and a third of the world doesn’t. That’s an important transition to me.

The kinds of energy that are put in place to do that are going to vary by what the world has access to. Every place in the world has different energy resources. Some are blessed with great oil and gas. Some have uranium, thorium, and nuclear that they can do. Some have wonderful wind. Some have terrific solar. There are places with wonderful tides and waves if they can capture that energy economically. There’s geothermal in Iceland, Southeast Asia, and other places. We’ll use what we have where we have it to accomplish the transition to a world where everyone has access to secure energy.

The qualifying of some energy sources as “green and good” while others are “dirty and bad” is hindering that progress. It’s causing political division and policymakers to do things that they may or may not do otherwise in a logical technical, economic, or scientific sense in order to meet the politics.

The challenge is with renewables. While the sun and the wind are renewable, the stuff to capture them is not. The turbines and the solar panels are not renewable. We have to mine for all of those metals. We have to mine for the silica, the rare earth elements. The chemicals in metals to make the batteries – and we’ll need lots and lots of batteries. Same with the wires to transmit the electrons where they need to be. And the landfill to dispose them, as they wear out because it’s a low density resource. It takes a tremendous amount of stuff to capture renewable enegy. It hasn’t been concentrated over millions of years by nature like oil, gas, and coal were.

The challenge is how do we make the energy systems of the world environmentally sustainable?

There’s CO2, methane, other greenhouse gases, and local air emissions. The land use for renewables, the mining, and the manufacturing, the disposal, and all the backup systems. The water which is used across many energy systems.

How do you do it in a way that’s much better than what we currently do in a way that also doesn’t hinder the ultimate transition: to secure sufficent and affordable energy for the world.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Scott Tinker (58m:42s).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Chris, Adam
Thank you very much for providing this discussion. This had much unexpected information, particularly about how industry scientists think about carbon mining going forward.
But no real discussion of EROI. Perhaps the seriously low EROI of solar due to intermittency and low EROI of shale carbon can be explored further with other experts. Thus a review of inputs to EROI in both areas would be great specific topics for the future. I myself am spending much personal time reviewing EROI for solar with experts and making my own measurments. I am shocked to see how much the market forces are overcomoe by govt decrees and how low EROI seems to be for large grid tie installations as well as for small off grid, when users rely on extremely expensive batteries. The inputs are hard to pin down and everything is all over the map. Good grist for further scientific and engineering consideration…
If the low EROI of solar cannot be overcome then many of us should consider abandoning current efforts. on the other hand, Scott Tinker’s emphasis on energy source mix is well placed, and specific life style changes have not really been explored by any of these speakers. have a levelized cost of energy and storage for 2018.

I stopped listening when he said that the exponential function describing resource depletion is going linear. It’s the same old (energy & resource hungry) technology will somehow cure the problems created by technology. There was an interesting article by a member of the Club of Rome. It describes how their World3 model shows how increases in efficiency etc will delay the inevitable fall off the cliff. But when we do fly off it, the crash will be much more severe.

Couldn’t finish listening either.
I am beginning to focus thinkers who talk seriously about Degrowth and Deep Green Resistance. There truly is no hope for continuation of waste based industrial capitalism and the lines are being drawn.

Thanks PP group for another excellent forum on the subject of energy use and supply. Dr. Tinker and his associates have done good things for the dissemination of the challenges facing energy use in our rapidly expanding world. His offering, Switch, is a good example of the type of in-depth exploration more people need to be made aware of. Unfortunately, many of us today won’t be around to see the results of the great energy innovations being made today and forward in the future. Also, unfortunately, these innovations blind us to the key concept that it is really about the energy that we don’t use, that will minimize the effects of human activity on the planet and the effects on us, individually. While it was briefly touched on in his film, it was largely overlooked due to the preponderance of “glitzy” techno-gimmickry of the current focused, "WOW factor. Is a transition coming? Yes; but at what cost.
Not that I wish cast aspersions on the issues, but if one takes a minute to view Dr. Tinker’s, Switch, I think a clip of the last few minutes of the movie can sum it up quite well. In his narrative, he lauds his family’s efforts to switch over to an electric golf cart to run errands in his upscale neighborhood. As they leave their garage, what was prominent to me was the bicycles hanging in the garage appearing in mint condition. For me, this is indicative of how we are missing the boat in this quest of energy efficiency. It is, largely, somebody else’s problem. Happy cycling and enjoy your next meal under your solar-array canopy before it ends up in your local municipal bio-digestor.

Great interview Chris! as always. It offered unbiased information which as far as I can tell is another mile-marker on our way through the predicament. We need more energy to fix the problems caused by the past energy burned to fuel the growth of human civilization. Kinda like a Naloxone for Humanity. Dr Michael Mann has suggested traveling back in time to change choices made. Problem is he may have already done that and was BBQ’d as a witch for the effort.
BTW it takes 40-50 years to completely decommission an old nuke. There are around 450.
Would anyone like to start a bitcoin wager to be collected in 2030? [kidding]

to me he’s missing the entire concept that much of today’s energy and the technological advances that have made it possible are a result of taking on an ENORMOUS amount of debt at incredibley low and unsustainable interest rates. he mentions ‘affordability’ several times but seamingly fails to realize that much of the energy we enjoy today wouldn’t be possible if we actually had to pay for it now, instead of borrowing from the future…it simply isn’t affordable at all once the true costs of debt become apparent.
What am I missing?

No real switch here, same old same old, just peddling technology overcoming resource depletion. Let’s do what we are doing now, just smarter.
All technologies have their issues let’s just pick the best ones of these and move on. Unfortunately misses the boat entirely. We are in the middle of a paradigm shift, one from consumption and exploitation to cooperation and cocreation.
stay the course and everyone will be lifted out of poverty, well that ain’t happening. Little bit of guilt there, if you don’t believe in this you’re OK with dooming large segments of humanity to energy poverty, a life of poverty.
Conflict, violence, division, degradation, exploitation are not side effects that can be mitigated by doing it smarter. They are baked into our current way of doing business, two sides of the same coin. We are evolving, but technological evolution is not the future, it is a side show.
Organic is great, but if you want to feed the world you need GMO’s right? This is this the kind of thinking projects the past onto the future without understanding the deeper transformation of the underlying current changes. There is an emerging vision that understands we are not at war with each other and the world around us, and there are more than the words winners and losers that define relationships.

Draft animals and starvation? Settle your mare?
remedievalization? How I fear that expression, however, it may be the best description of what’s to come.

That should have been “trillions” of barrels.

Mr. Tinker seems to be totally politically correct. His site looks like a huge fortune went into its development. The messages, education and information are no doubt corporations approved. A perfect spokesman for the industry!
The message is - Resources are vast there are still billions of barrels of oil yet to be acquired. And technology is constantly improving. Don’t worry, be happy!
Well thank god, and I thought we were in danger of resource wars.
My father used to say - bah-humbug. While I can’t articulate the data I do believe the message is too good to be true. Whats the real story, after all we are told what they want us to hear.
Cranky Granny

it’s one thing to say these green sources have costs and limitations, it’s quite another to suggest that on some basis, they all have problems…as if they somehow equate. I’m with the others, the more I listened, the more he sounded like a spokesmodel. Taking the position that you’re only looking out for the underprivileged of the world doesn’t cut it and sounds like a marketing gimmick. Last time I checked, it’s the underprivileged who are getting hit the hardest and the quickest by the global warming gift.
In this article, he reveals his hand a little faster:
As Chris demonstrated quickly, eroei was also minimized in another effort to (1) equate these sources and (2) suggest these sources will be there for us for hundreds of years. This contradicts even the internal investment patterns of the industry

I agree completely with your comments.
I watched the Switch movie before listening to the podcast. Very nice (and expensive) production. Where did the money for this production (and other projects in the Switch Alliance) and come from? I found this article which talks about the funding sources for the Switch Alliance.
I also found this grant request for Project STARR in the Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG):
The Bureau of Economic Geology is an organized research unit of UT and the State Geological Survey. Its work is critical to the development of Texas energy, water and mineral resources and protection and management of the Texas environment. The State of Texas Advanced Resource Recovery Program (STARR) was charged with helping operators increase production from state lands’ oil and gas leases to increase the royalty that supports the Permanent School Fund. Continued revenue neutral funding is important for this vital state program.
So an important project in this UT department is focused on helping oil producers in Texas increase production. This does not seem to be a department with a neutral view on current and future energy sources.
The message from the Switch Alliance is definitely one that says “Everything is fine. Technology will solve all problems.” Its a message that fossil fuel based energy companys would be happy to promote.
Chris did a great job of restraining himself in this podcast.

Harvard Professor Graham Allison offers some insight. Perhaps we could ask him where he thinks we are in the energy story?

I have the strong sinking feeling/belief that most of what we humans are doing is generally not sustainable and bad for the environment,
specially at the scale we are doing it.
We are a greedy bunch, even when we have good intentions we don’t fully understand that our day to day actions have serious and real repercussions. I feel stuck, aware of this predicament but unwilling to make the very hard choices to act right. I’m trying with my homestead but sometimes I think it’s just more of the same comercial activity with a slightly less bad long term effect
I say this without judgement (I’m in this predicament myself) but I believe something that is missing from the PP conversation is the personal accountability part of the equation. We talk about investing a lot and the markets gold/silver but really these activities are again at the core of poor human choices. If the “proper” way forward is to live sustainably than what does that mean?
It can’t be stock markets and gold bullion and hight tech anything can it?
It feels more and more obvious that baring a total Mad Max break-down we are hopefully headed towards a future like my grandfathers early years in a prairie farm. Lots of hard work with draft animals and simple tools.

Your Granfather was my Father. He died happy. There are still a few left who have their mare settled.

The tone of this guest exemplified what I call “academic calmness” that many real climate scientists have had for amazingly long to reflect away any concerns. Yes, we all know that carbon is very common - the 10th most common element in earth’s crust - and hence there’s a nearly limitless supply of it. And yes, it’s a good reminder that we haven’t gotten more than a fraction of it out thus far. I was honestly surprised that we’ve only gotten 1% or so out, when I thought that we were somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20%. Regardless, there’s no way for us to get the 2nd percent out let alone the 3rd, 4th etc. or we’ll end up frying ourselves in the next few centuries the very latest. The best option we can hope for to avoid really horrible things seems to be near-term economic stagnation followed by a slow decline accompanied with a steady population drop through collapsing birth rates.

Chris, I would like to thank you for inviting this guest on to the podcast and for interviewing him with tremendous self restraint. I listened to the podcast from start to finish, because although I don’t agree with many (most of?) Mr Tinker’s opinions, I think it is important to listen to and try to understand what the “other side” is thinking.
At the end of the podcast I was left with a profound sense of unease which I haven’t quite got over yet. Mr Tinker is very well qualified and experienced and an excellent communicator, but It seemed to me that too many of his beliefs are underpinned by a Mr Micawber like “something will turn up”. There are vast untapped reserves of oil and gas which are uneconomical to extract? No matter; something will turn up, somebody will invent someting to make them economical to extract in the future. And so on. So everything is basically fine; we have plenty of time, we can continue our present lifestyles and continue planning for a future of more of the same. That was the message I was getting, it’s a very seductive message, and it’s exactly the message which governments and fossil fuel industries want to hear, and want us to hear, which is probably why Mr Tinker’s organisations are so heavily sponsored by governments and fossil fuel industries.
But what if he is wrong? What if the magical something doesn’t turn up, and those fossil fuel reserves turn out to be uneconomical to extract and have to stay in the ground? What do we do then? That doesn’t seem to feature anywhere in his world view.
I think I’ll carry on with my personal preparations, if that’s OK with Mr Tinker.