Monthly Archives: December 2009

Global Warming, Peak Oil, and Economic Crisis

When Zach and I started this blog, we agreed that it should be in the technical domain, rather than the political one as much as possible. The hope was that with high quality information available to the political class and activists, the “solutions” would be forthcoming. As time goes on though, it seems that even as difficult as our energy challenges are, the political ones are tougher. This reality requires the Energy Strain blog to deal with issues that may be considered to be more in the political domain.

For the moment, the world seems focused on “Climate Change.” Climate change is the new term for what was originally termed “Global Warming.” It is difficult to figure out who changed “Global Warming” to “Climate Change.” I would argue that both of these names are actually very poor names for this problem. One thing that we know for sure is that the Earth’s climate has been changing for the entire time that it has existed. It seems to me that if you wanted to come up with a name to motivate people to action, you would not use a term that describes something that is “normal.”

Peak Oil is an equally poor name for the problems that people are using it to describe. Peak oil, when used in the M King Hubbert sense, is a perfectly correct term. Hopefully we all know of the work of M King Hubbert, and his curves describing how oil fields age. The problem with the way that “Peak Oil” is now used is that it now means hundreds of different things to different people. From the simplest and obviously correct meaning, that a mathematical curve can be applied to the theoretical extraction rate of an oil province, Peak Oil is now also being used as a substitute term for we’re running out of oil, Malthus was right, all problems are caused by running out of oil, and the end is coming.

Economic crisis is also a very poor name for a widely varied set of symptoms. Economists originally called it “Sub-Prime” Crisis, then “Recession,” and now their favorite seems to be “Economic Crisis.” The names are likely to change as the symptoms of the end of the Industrial Age present themselves.

After studying the end of the Industrial Age for about five years, it all seems quite simple to me. These problems are all related, and must be contemplated and solutions proposed for the actual problems, not just the symptoms, and not with solutions that “feel good,” but rather solutions that fit the physics of the problem.

The problem is simple.
Man found a substance in Earth’s “basement” that allowed him to temporarily overcome the normal limit of living on Earth, that limit being: living on the energy that comes from the Sun. Man used the energy from this substance to continuously increase the amount of energy available from this substance. He also created an economic system that automatically creates more interest debt as time passes, and thus requires economic growth in order that it remain plausible that the interest accumulation could be repaid. As he used this substance, he put the undesired components into the atmosphere, hoping that it would be OK.

Now Industrial Man finds himself in the following situation.
1. The net energy (gross energy minus the energy used in the extraction) from fossil fuel is in decline.
2. His financial system is collapsing because repayment of the interest is not plausible, and the economy cannot grow enough without more energy to make it plausible.
3. The Earths formerly sequestered carbon is now in the atmosphere, and he is not sure exactly what it means. But most agree it’s probably not good.

So Global Warming, Peak Oil, and financial collapse are the same problem.
Maybe we should name the entire situation “DADESFFC” for Dying and Dysfunctional Energy System Feeding Financial Collapse. Ok, so maybe it’s not a sexy acronym. Or maybe it’s too complicated for some to understand. But the point is that without understanding the big picture, and without looking for solutions to the actual problems, we are left in the dark shooting at the symptoms.

Lately “Climate Change” has been in the news with the negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark. Some of the activists seem to be advocating that we solve the problems with massive redistribution of wealth. Their solutions are simple–take money from the polluters and give it to the less fortunate. Problem Solved. If only it were anywhere near this easy.

The reality is that the technologies that are available to “replace” the current fossil fuel technologies are not drop-in replacements. A society created from alternative energy technologies will be profoundly different. Here are some of the technical challenges along with the implications of a post fossil fuel economy:

1. Renewable energy sources are powered by low density energy.
Low density means that the systems will be very large, and consume huge quantities of resources and labor in order to construct. In an economic sense, this by necessity means that the systems will be expensive.

2. Renewable energy sources have low energy return on energy investment (EROEI). Low EROEI means that renewable energy systems will have low profitability for their investors, and will take many years to return their initial investment. It also means that there is not room for mistakes in the implementation of these systems. Small mistakes in implementation that cause increased energy consumption, will convert low EROEI energy “production” systems into energy “sinks,” i.e., they cause consumption rather than provide energy.

3. Renewable energy systems are not a drop-in for fossil fuel technologies. This means that much of the most expensive equipment in our fossil fuel powered industrial economy must be replaced. A replacement society that is powered from renewable energy sources will be less wealthy, and have less complexity than a fossil fuel powered one. This may mean that there is no excess wealth to transfer from the former “wealthy” countries to the “developing” countries.

Simply transferring wealth from the “wealthy” fossil fuel consumers to the “developing” countries is very likely to aggravate the problems. It could leave the “wealthy” countries without enough surplus capital to develop renewable technologies, and it could just cause increased energy consumption in the “developing” countries.

Converting to a post fossil fuel era will not be easy. Resources will be scarce and financial systems very unstable. This means that in order to successfully accomplish it, we will have to understand what we are really up against, not choose one symptom and propose a “solution” for it that aggravates the real problem.

If we cannot solve the technical problems of operating a modern society from renewable energy, the only “deal” that we may be able to make is to lower our standard of living to their standard of living, if they agree not to try to raise theirs.

It goes without saying that this will be a difficult political sell, and I fear that those who are pushing these large redistributions aren’t as concerned about the environment as they claim, meaning that this would not be an acceptable solution, even though it may be the only one that is technically feasible with our current technology.