There’s no getting around it: all of our modern comforts and conveniences rely on absurd levels of energy. Cheap, reliable electricity and fuel is the cornerstone of modern civilization as we know it. The foundation upon which everything else is built. This has only become truer over the course of the 20th and early 21st centuries, as we’ve come to rely more and more on computers, the internet, and fast international travel.
Yet, this mana of the modern age has come with a cost—the full extent of which we’ve only recently come to understand.
Of course, there are many environmental problems associated with our industrialized, high-density, high-population societies: habitat destruction, pollution, deforestation, desertification, and the giant garbage patch in the Pacific ocean that has an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers—twice the size of the US state of Texas.
But few are as pressing as our irresponsible production and use of energy.
Transportation and electricity production account for just over half of all greenhouse gas emissions, contributing enormously to global climate change. But even if one is a “climate skeptic”, other realities involving the energy we use are still impossible to ignore or dismiss. Dirty energy sources like coal and gasoline cause pollution that worsens our health, and any energy that derives from non-renewable resources will experience massive price surges in the event of supply chain disruptions or geopolitical tensions.
This has become painfully real for many countries. In 2021, the People’s Republic of China experienced a massive energy crisis as a result of soaring global coal prices, leading to electricity rationing. And in 2022, fuel prices have spiked all over the “developed” world as a result of sanctions against Russia. And both of these crises took place at a time when the world was already suffering with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, making that fallout worse.
So even leaving aside the primary issue of climate change, finding ways to produce and consume energy more responsibly is also a matter of health, wealth, and national security. It’s not a coincidence that the People’s Republic of China—one of the largest consumers of non-renewable “dirty” energy—has been one of the major players driving the price of solar energy down. But the fact that it still relies so heavily on coal, despite its efforts to scale up renewables, shows just how difficult adopting more responsible energy practices can be!
Everybody would switch to cheap renewable energy if they could, but the intermittency issue is still too large of a hurdle. Right now, the only truly efficient and reliable means of grid-level energy storage is pumped hydro, but this requires the correct kind of geography and very large upfront costs. Many places in the world are simply not suitable.
Likewise, everybody would switch to clean-running electric vehicles if they could, but the battery technology is just not mature enough for electric vehicles to scale up the way they’d need to in order to replace traditional combustion engines.
The understanding is there; the ambition is there. But the technology is still lagging behind both.
There are questions of ethics and fairness, as well. Wealthy, developed nations are starting to make responsible energy use a major focus in how they engage with developing nations. For example, the G7 nations have decided to stop funding fossil fuel development abroad. But considering that every single one of these nations attained (and continue to maintain) their wealth with copious amounts of fossil fuels, these moves can easily come off as them saying “screw you, got mine” to developing nations. Do we really expect less fortunate countries to twiddle their thumbs and remain in poverty while they await the maturation of more sustainable energy sources?
It’s a messy, complex business all around, where there aren’t any easy answers. So it’s no wonder that frustration is high.
It’s also no wonder why the high energy costs of Proof-of-Work blockchains have been one of the biggest gripes that the general public have against crypto. At a time when energy is at a premium, and anxieties about climate change are surging, a resentment towards this aspect of crypto mining is totally understandable. If we’re really serious about widespread crypto adoption, it’s something that has to be addressed.
The answers may not be easy to find, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. And given that finding them is the key to realizing a prosperous and decentralized future, we here at Spacemesh want to do our part in this search.