Energy

The Economic-Oil Nexus (EON) Part 1: Why have low oil prices and various economic stimuli over the past several years failed to restore global economic growth?

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Published on The Doomstead Diner on November 24, 2019

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By Geoffrey Chia, November 2019

EONpart1flowchart

I recently listened to a podcast from the "Counterpunch" website on oil and the global economy which I found disappointing. https://store.counterpunch.org/jp-sottile-episode-140/ JP Sottile certainly appeared knowledgeable about the geopolitics of oil in the Middle East but exhibited zero understanding of Peak Oil which he therefore declared to be “garbage”. He asserted that the idea of Peak Oil was a ploy to create “artificial scarcity” to prop up oil prices. He subscribed to the common delusion that current low oil prices disprove Peak Oil and indicate that oil must be abundant and will remain so for the foreseeable future, a completely wrong-headed view. http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/2017/07/13/the-economics-of-unconventional-oils-externalities-be-damned/

He repeated the mainstream mantra that there is now a “chronic oil glut”, a completely erroneous way of looking at things. Gross liquid hydrocarbon output may have risen since 2006 but net production of true oil has actually been flat or fallen. http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/2019/01/02/how-business-as-usual-has-been-pursued-since-2006-by-escalating-fraud-and-environmental-vandalism/#comment-10693

He also repeated the misleading factoid that the largest oil reserves in the world are in Venezuela, a useful meme to imply that Venezuela's current economic problems are entirely due to their own mismanagement. I cannot say often enough that the only economically valuable sources of oil are high EROEI or “easy oil” sources and low EROEI sources such as Venezuela's vast Orinoco heavy oil deposits are of NO economic value, no matter how much technically recoverable oil they are theoretically supposed to have (if harvested, low EROEI sources actually exhibit NEGATIVE value). This is why China has no interest in Venezuela but is deeply interested in Iran, Iraq (which is moving politically closer to Iran), Russia and the Caspian states which, after the Saudi client state of the US, are the locations with the largest remaining reserves of high EROEI oil. There is NO “break-even” price at which unconventional oils become economically worthwhile, using honest accounting. Low EROEI sources only get harvested on the basis of market fraud and government subsidies/tax breaks and NOT because they can ever generate any profit in a sane market.

Sottile also stated that the “end of oil is on the horizon” because we will transition to electric vehicles powered by renewable energy and because we will voluntarily choose to reduce our carbon emissions. His views mirrored commentary from the “Economist” magazine, flagship propaganda rag of the establishment, in their recent issue regarding the IPO of Saudi Aramco https://www.economist.com/printedition/2019-11-02.

Let us be clear: Firstly there is no prospect we will ever be able to transition en mass from oil powered to electric vehicles to enable ongoing pursuit of “business as usual” or anything resembling “usual”. Such views reflect profound ignorance of the physics and chemistry (especially energy densities) of fuels, of thermodynamics, of energy extraction, conversion, storage and distribution issues and of the life cycle embodied energies of vehicles and transport infrastructure and how they are constructed (themselves requiring liquid hydrocarbon fuels in the process). I invoke yet again the incisive and comprehensive quantitative analyses of Alice Friedemann of http://energyskeptic.com/ who has put paid to those mainstream delusions.

Secondly, although we certainly need to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate against the worst possible climate outcomes, the unfortunate reality is that the Military-Industrial-Corporate-State addiction to oil, massively overwhelms any and all good intentions. Addicts do not “choose” to do things, they are compelled to do things because of circumstances forced upon them. We will ultimately be forced to abandon oil due to the depletion of high EROEI petroleum and because of our failure to plan over the past few decades. Energy descent will not happen calmly and systematically. The window for peaceful change has long gone. Reality will relentlessly drag us yelling, kicking and screaming into a harsh future of poverty and deprivation and many will lash out violently in the process. The Hobbesian war of all against all. We are going Cold Turkey, much as Kurt Vonnegut wrote in in his famous essay back in 2004: http://inthesetimes.com/article/cold_turkey What have human beings learned since then? Absolutely nothing.

To be fair, Sottile seemed to be expressing opinions that he held honestly, no matter how wrong-headed. In that respect it may be inappropriate to lump him in the same category as those lying, malicious global warming deniers or deceitful establishment economic prostitutes, many of whom are touted as academic "experts". One big problem of such “experts” is that of tunnel vision within their microscopic field of choice, their inability to see the big picture. Another problem is that many such pseudo-experts are simply bonkers, especially the amoral Neoclassical Neoliberal Austrian/Chicago Economic School sociopaths such as Hayek and Friedman. Such overblown pseudo-experts (who may even have been awarded the Nobel prize for economics – which is not an actual Nobel prize) promote the vested financial interests of the 0.1%. They are immensely useful idiots, the high priests of Capitalism and hence must be lionised and worshipped by the mainstream media. Their reputations have been vastly inflated by the establishment, far above their woefully limited intellectual capacities, not to mention their woeful lack of moral fibre. Profits above people are the only things which matter, except when giving backhanders to your fellow crony capitalists. We should remember that Adam Smith himself wrote “the theory of moral sentiments” before he wrote “the wealth of nations”. Although he was the original “free market” classical economist, Smith was deeply concerned about ethical regulation and governance to reduce human suffering and enhance well being, unlike the Neoclassical conartists.

There are many other overblown and overrated celebrants, proponents and apologists for the Western Industrial Capitalist system pervading the internet, Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker being among the most prominent. But hey, if you can cultivate an impressive shock of white hair, carefully coiffed to resemble that of Einstein, then people gotta believe you are real smart, don't they? Notwithstanding such pulchritudinous follicular triumph, genuinely smart people like Richard Wolff and Noam Chomsky have thoroughly and convincingly demolished the platforms of Peterson and Pinker respectively, showing them up to be the mediocre useful idiots they actually are. The fact that Peterson confessed to be an avid fan of Bjorn Lomborg, another absurd pretender, is proof positive he is a microcephalic scientific ignoramus. On the other hand, Peterson is smart enough to know he ain't that smart. After bombastically issuing a public challenge to all comers, he wisely declined to debate Richard Wolff about Marxist economics, knowing he was out of his depth and would be savaged like a sheep by Wolff.

SP in elegant, pensive pose: Sartorially, a pulchritudinous follicular triumph. Intellectually, a sloppy, cringeworthy embarrassment.

JP pontificating on throne: give due credit that he is smart enough to know he ain't that smart. Also remembers to flush after vacating said throne.

As mentioned above, it is not just one idea but many ideas that we need to juggle in our heads simultaneously to try to achieve a proper understanding of our current circumstances. Mathematically and quantitatively this is an impossible task for any single individual, however the Limits to Growth scientists did an admirable job addressing this difficulty by careful computer modelling conducted more than 45 years ago. Their standard model has held up incredibly well with modern day reality. In an effort to subjectively illustrate the dynamic interaction of multiple contemporary factors within a complex framework, I devised this simple 3 dimensional model as a visual aid to understanding: https://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2017/12/the-seneca-cliff-explained-as-network.html

I am saying nothing new here which I have not already stated before, but will try to summarise the essentials in a cogent manner, hopefully more clearly than I have previously, this time adding flow charts. I will highlight key concepts and omit less important considerations which might detract and distract from those key concepts. It is impossible to be more comprehensive without writing a multitude of more detailed essays employing graphs and diagrams with appended supportive references (which I have already done previously).

Insert EONflowchart.jpg here

This article, “EON Part1” attempts to answer the apparently simple question: "why have low oil prices and various economic stimuli over the past several years failed to restore global economic growth to the way things were before the crash of 2008/9?"

That question is predicated on certain historical observations noted prior to the world reaching the peak/plateau of conventional oil output in 2006: that high oil prices in the past tended to cause inflation and economic recession, and that low oil prices in the past tended to stimulate productivity and economic growth. I will tackle the answer(s) to that two part question in two parts as well.

Answer to part 1 of the question: Low Oil Prices:

The question itself is flawed in the context of our new post Peak Oil situation because it looks at things in a flawed manner. Confusion reigns supreme because we are attempting to see things through the distorted lens of price. Oil price is a flawed derived variable, subject to all sorts of manipulations and distortions, which I assert is unimportant. I will repeat that. Oil price is unimportant. What is important to consumers, to businesses, to enterprises which provide real services and produce real items of real material value in the real world, is oil affordability. It does not matter if oil is "cheap" now. If my business was destroyed by the Global Financial Crisis in 2009 and I have been unable to build things up again, if my income stream is presently a mere trickle, I cannot now afford to buy significant amounts of that "cheap" oil, certainly nowhere near the amount that used to drive my previous profligate middle class lifestyle. I cannot return to those heady pre-2009 high consumption days. Decimation of the high consumption middle classes has caused destruction of demand, a key concept.

At its most basic, price is a reflection of supply versus demand. Pre Peak Oil, low oil prices were largely a reflection of increasing oil supply and did at that time largely reflect affordability. Post Peak Oil, low oil prices are largely an enduring result of demand destruction and are therefore NOT a reflection of affordability, certainly not by the majority of the population.

It is possible to have low oil prices in the presence of declining oil supply, if the demand and supply are both declining in tandem or especially if demand is destroyed at a greater rate than supply.

The first part of the question posed should therefore NOT be "why have current low oil prices failed to restore economic growth?" but should be rephrased as "why is the questioner still trapped in a pre Peak Oil mindset?"

Also confusing the picture is the interplay between economic/financial policies and oil production, which did not unfold in a manner any sane person could have reasonably anticipated prior to the peak of conventional oil. Sane people could never have predicted the whole scale, open slather rape of the environment to harvest unconventional oils, driven by outright fraud and Ponzi madness to fund scams which hopelessly failed to break even financially, much less produce profits. Yes, this insanity did forestall the net decline in oil supply, but at horrific cost. Foolish suckers like BHP Billiton can attest to that.

We need to clarify and better define confusing terminology: low oil prices and cheap oil do not mean the same thing. “Cheap” oil cannot truly be called “cheap” if it is unaffordable by the majority. Just because the oil price is now low compared to historic highs does not mean oil is cheap. Unconventional oils are in reality very expensive to extract and transport (mostly by diesel vehicles, not by pipeline) but they have been rendered “cheap” by the flood of low interest money loaned to suckers who will ultimately lose their shirts when the unconventional oil scams collapse. Unconventional oils have been subsidised by stupidity. Furthermore these low EROEI expensive oils simply cannot be sold in the market unless price matched to higher EROEI conventional oil, which is truly “cheap” to harvest and transport.

Answer to Part 2 of the question: Low Interest Rates:

But what about the current low interest rates? Surely that should stimulate former bankrupted small business owners, previously crushed by the heavy weight of irredeemable debt, to now borrow heaps of fiat money again from those wonderful banks to resurrect their former businesses back to pre 2009 glory? And if they can do that, surely their former customers, also now in financial dire straits, can also access cheap money from the banks to buy more goods and services from those small businesses, all those activities driving up the national GDP? One response to this scenario is the phrase "once bitten, twice shy". There is nothing to prevent the banks from raising their interest rates without warning once they have snared the borrower in debt.

However the main answer here lies in who is actually being offered the cheap loans. Is it the small business battlers who lost all their assets after 2009, who may now be deemed unacceptable credit risks by the banks, or are those cheap loans mainly going to large corporations who claim to have massive assets (e.g. huge coal or oil deposits) in their glossy brochures? Professor Richard Wolff has stated that it is largely the latter being given the cheap money. And what have those corporations done with that cheap money? They have bought back their own publicly listed shares (an act previously deemed illegal but now permitted in the deregulated economy) resulting in inflation of their share prices, without any reinvestment in real infrastructure and without increasing real productivity. This has been demonstrated by the huge increases in price/earnings ratios of many large companies over the past several years. Share price rises have fuelled a monumental Ponzi stock market, while also funding insane negative value scams such as Shale Oil. Why engage in share buyback? Because CEO salary bonuses are tied to the company share prices. Furthermore those CEOs know their particular industries have no future, so reinvestment is pointless and they may as well take the money and run.

What is the consequence of the former middle class small business owners or employees now relegated to slave wages in Walmart or Costco, not having access to cheap money and not being able to bootstrap themselves back to middle class wealth again? It is the enduring phenomenon of demand destruction: those folks still cannot afford to buy much "cheap oil", which keeps the oil demand low and hence oil prices low. How many such people have been affected? Literally hundreds of millions of formerly high consuming people in the so-called first world countries. A huge proportion of the former middle class of the USA has been reduced to penury. We have seen the destruction of the entire middle classes of the European PIIGS countries, even extending to France as evidenced by the “yellow vest” protests. Retail establishments have been closing and businesses failing at rates never seen before which cannot be explained by the rise of online shopping alone but can be explained by consumption destruction and demand destruction. https://www.businessinsider.com.au/retail-apocalypse-start-of-2019-more-store-closures-all-of-2018-2019-4?op=1&r=US&IR=T

Students see poor economic prospects for themselves and increasing swathes of graduates find themselves eking a living out as baristas or waiters or cleaners while simultaneously being saddled with massive student debts they will never be able to repay. Many from southern Europe have left or are leaving their home countries for (illusory) greener pastures overseas, causing their home countries to lose even more of their future tax base and their working populations e.g. Greece and Spain.

The rising middle class within China, although substantial, has done little to offset this phenomenon. Their construction of high speed electric railways and plans to electrify all their road vehicles has helped and will help to reduce their demand for oil and hence blunt rises in the world oil price. However such measures have not and will not eliminate their absolute need for oil for their industrial economy to function.

To summarise: Current low oil prices are largely the result of destruction of oil demand which was the result of the collapse of millions of businesses, investments and retirement funds around the world, which was the result of the default of irredeemable debt imposed on unwary borrowers by predatory lenders.

Debt defaults were accelerated by the Peaking/Plateauing of net oil production. When net oil production becomes flat, real material growth grinds to a halt and ongoing debts become impossible to service.

Debt entrapment had been facilitated by "financial innovations" such as sub-prime lending, bogus derivatives (e.g. collateralised debt obligations) and bogus assurances (e.g. credit default swaps). Those giant scams were facilitated by the deregulation of the banks e.g. Clinton overturning Glass-Steagall in 1999.

A similar mechanism of predatory lending e.g. German banks offering irredeemable debt to Greece was the underlying basis for the eventual Greek economic collapse, causing penury, decimation of their public services and ongoing enforcement of impoverishment to service their ongoing debt (i.e. austerity). This is literally killing many ordinary Greeks.

We may now well see a gradual increase in demand for oil with the current ongoing low oil prices, which may transiently increase economic output, however that “growth” will undoubtedly be destroyed again by the inevitable subsequent rise in oil prices and ongoing relentless decline in high EROEI sources. Fluctuating oil prices overlying a stuttering contraction of the global economy was a solid prediction of Peak Oil theory more than a decade ago. When economic activities eventually contract to the delivery of only bare subsistence goods and services, when consumers no longer have any discretionary expenditure, there will be a final skyrocketing of oil prices causing rampant hyperinflation which will very likely trigger war(s). That will represent the end game for global industrial civilisation.

 

 

 

 

 

Responding to Collapse, Part 14: adapting to life without the grid

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on October 29, 2019

Late October Sunset over Lake Huron

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I am still on Hiatus, not so much due to being under the weather as due to my new Gaming habit, playing the online, browser based game of Vikings: War of Clans.  For the Doomer and Collapse Prepper & Planner, it's the best game I have found to date which makes you think about your Resources, plan for Zombie Attacks and secure and build your Doomstead.  I have been engaged in a non-stop series of Battles and Competitions over the last couple of weeks as I learned the features of the Game, of which there are many.  When my addicition finally calms down, I'll get back to work writing about all the IRL DOOM currently facing us, most notably this week the EXTREME fire problem in Oz, where the fires have moved from the Bush to the Big Shity of Sydney in New South Wales.  Before we hear from Irv who is standing in again for me this week, here's one of the current Newz Reports.  This and the major danger day isn't until Tuesday! – RE

 

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By Irv Mills

 

This is the last of 4 posts on coping with the decline and demise of the power grid that I promised in Part 11) of this Responding to Collapse series. Last time, with the help of Joe Clarkson, we looked at a typical off grid solar electric system. I would encourage anyone with sufficient financial resources to set up such a system. But even using the most durable equipment produced by BAU (business as usual), and with lots of spare parts in stock, such a system will eventually come to the point where no more use can be eked out of it using locally available "village" level technology and materials.

Before things come to that point, though, such a system can serve two very import uses:

1) allow us to use electrical power for things like lighting, refrigeration, pumping water, communication and entertainment, which will help reduce the initial shock of adapting to post grid life.

2) allow us to use what modern tools and power equipment we have on hand to facilitate the construction of low tech power systems that don't need things semiconductors or fossil fuels, which will be in short supply.

That second use is what I'll be talking about today.

The Context of Collapse

But first I'd like to review the context in which I believe all this will be happening—it has been a while since I've talked about that.

The majority of people in the "collapse sphere" here on the internet are expecting a hard, fast collapse sometime in the next few years. Many of them have been expecting it to happen next year for 15 or 20 years now and others have begun to chuckle at the long string of failed predictions. But my observation is that collapse started back in the 1970s when conventional oil production peaked in the continental United States. It has progressed since then and I expect it will continue, gradually and bumpily—unevenly (geographically), unsteadily (chronologically) and unequally (socially), until BAU can no longer provide us with the necessities of life.

One popular expectation among kollapsniks is that some trigger event will cause a financial crash and that will lead to a breakdown of supply chains that will leave almost everyone cold, hungry and in the dark. This sort of fast collapse makes for great stories with lots of conflict and drama, but in reality a planet is a big place. I can't imagine the degree of co-ordination it would take to make this happen fast and hard, all at once across the whole world. Especially when many of us will be working together to stop it from happening.

So yes, there will a financial crash or, most likely, several crashes over a period of years, but the damage will not be uniform across the whole system. And yes, in some areas, it will be serious enough that the supply chains supporting human life will start to fail. But not completely and not everywhere at once.

Initially governments will still have the wherewithal to mount relief efforts for the worst hit areas. Probably using the military to move fuel, water, food and medical supplies to affected areas, and to set up refugee camps for those who are forced to leave their homes. But as the economy crumbles it will have a weakening effect on governments and their resources will be stretched thin. Already we are seeing a tendency to blame people for whatever plight they find themselves in and to abandon them to their own devices, cutting back on expensive relief efforts. This will no doubt get worse, especially in right wing countries where the social contract is weak and the upper classes rule solely for their own benefit. That would include the USA, in my opinion.

Things will get pretty grim, especially in those camps. Indeed, I suspect that in areas where no help is forthcoming, the majority of people (maybe as many as 80 to 90 percent) aren't going to make it through. This is certainly nothing to cheer about, but I am afraid it is one of the harsh realities of collapse. Another unpleasant reality is that under such circumstances, there will be large numbers of desperate, hungry refugees walking out of the large population centres where food is no longer to be found.

Because collapse is happening unevenly, when you find yourself in difficult circumstances, you can usually find someplace else where things aren't so bad. I have been talking, throughout this series of posts, about doing just that—setting yourself up in a small remote town with local food and energy resources, far enough from large towns and cities so that the majority of refugees travelling on foot are unlikely to make it to your small town. That way, you'll be able to welcome those who do make it, rather than being swamped by them.

And I've been urging people to make their move while there is still time to build a network of acquaintances and friends who can help you cope with the gradual decline of BAU and adapt to its eventual demise. I am not suggesting that such places will be exempt from collapse, but rather that they have the local resources to adapt in ways that large population centres simply can't. A big part of that preparation will include being ready to switch over to subsistence farming when those supply chains finally let you down. And having sufficient food stored to see you through to your first harvest. All within walking distance of where you live.

That is really a subject for another day, but it does have a connection to the eventual demise of the power grid and our response to that demise. Bumpy collapse is hard on continent spanning structures like the grid and will be one of the causes of its demise, along with the faults built into capitalism. But a gradual bumpy collapse does give people a chance to wake up to what is going on.

Long before there is a massive die-off due to supply chain failure, there will be a period (perhaps it has already started) when things are going badly wrong in enough places that anyone who is paying attention will start to get pretty concerned. We saw this happen during and for the years before and after the Global Financial Crisis (approximately 2006 to 2012)—the idea of collapse gained quite a bit of credibility. But then things settled down and interest in collapse waned. I am now seeing interest starting to grow again and I expect this will continue. So finding people to work with on preparations may well become much easier than it is now.

During that period the resources of BAU will still be more or less available and those wise enough to do so will be able to set up some local structures which can step in to replace BAU when the need arises—community gardens and farms, food storage co-ops, energy co-ops and so forth.

I encourage you to pick a town with farmland, ground water and standing timber in good supply. It would also be useful if there are one or more good hydro power resources nearby. There is falling water in abundance here in southern Ontario. Many small towns were once mill towns and still have the remains of a dam and an abandoned mill or generating station which could be refurbished with much less effort than starting from scratch.

I am convinced that there is no need for collapse to take us all the way back to the stone age or even the middle ages. But I am also sure that material consumption and energy use must fall to a sustainable level that can be supported with local, renewable resources.

To stop a fall all the way back to the stone age, we will need to take advantage of some of the legacies of BAU.

BAU's Legacies

One hears a great deal about the negative legacies that BAU is leaving for future generations—climate change, resource depletion, environmental and social disruption—the list goes on. I don't disagree with any of that, but I'd like to point out that there will also be some positive legacies that many people who are thinking about collapse aren't taking into account.

  • The first of these, in my estimation, is the knowledge that mankind has accumulated up to this point, including the scientific method and the change in attitudes that came with the Enlightenment. Immersed as we are in that knowledge, it is hard to appreciate how difficult it was for people in the past to make the discoveries and developments they did, without knowing in advance what was even possible or how to accomplish it. We have an immense advantage over them, in that we know a great deal about the world around us and how things work.
  • Second, there are alive today many skilled and ingenious people, tradesmen and hobbyists, even engineers, who, after industrial civilization grinds to a halt, will be able to do a great deal with its remnants.
  • Thirdly there will be all those remnants, including:

     

     

     

     

     

    • durable equipment and tools that will continue working for years or decades after the factories of BAU have gone dark
    • large scale infrastructure such as roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, communications, power, water and sewage systems, factories, housing and other buildings
    • true, many of these will be left in pretty rough shape, but what can't be used as is will still have a great deal of value for the materials that can be salvaged from it
    • initially there will even be some fossil fuels left in local storage, plus materials and spare parts sitting on shelves ready for us to use

It is to be hoped that some of those skilled people will have set up off-grid power systems and things like tool libraries and workshops (maker spaces as they are called these days). We should encourage and support such efforts in every way we can, since they will be of great importance in facilitating the transition to long term, sustainable systems that can be operated, maintained and replaced when necessary with "village technology", local materials and local sources of energy.

Local energy sources

I think it's worth taking a look at what kinds of energy may be available locally and how can they be harnessed.

Fossil fuels

Fossil fuels will no longer be readily available except in the few areas where there are functional oil/gas wells or coal mines. Sure, thinking of climate change, it would be better to keep that carbon in the ground rather that returning more of it to the atmosphere. Still, I wouldn't discourage anyone from making use of such an energy source if it is close at hand, and you can get it out of the ground and convert it into usable forms. The amount of CO2 involved would be tiny compared to what's going into the atmosphere today.

Nuclear Energy

I live only a few miles from a nuclear plant, and I used to work in the switchyards there. The importance of a reliable tie to the grid was firmly impressed on me—without it, nuclear stations cannot operate safely. So nuclear plants will have to be shut down as the grid becomes unreliable. The employees of those plants, who live nearby, have a large incentive to see them shut down and mothballed safely. They will take this into their own hands, regardless of what company executives might want. And I am sure the employees will have the backing of the local community.

It is important to get that shutdown underway as quickly as possible while we still have the resources to do it. I expect spent fuel will be stored locally in dry flasks, which is considerably safer than leaving it in spent fuel ponds.

This leaves us with renewable energy sources—solar, wind, hydro, tidal, and biomas.

Solar Power

Converting solar energy into electricity takes some pretty high tech equipment. Photovoltaics (solar cells) will almost certainly be beyond our ability to produce locally. It is possible to use solar energy to create steam and drive turbines which power electrical generators. But this is really only slightly lower tech than semiconductor solar panels. And because solar energy is intermittent, we'd need some way of storing it, probably batteries. In the quantity needed, batteries are likely beyond village technology.

That leaves us to use heat from the sun directly for water or space heating, cooking, drying crops, or for process heat in cottage industry situations. And to find a way of doing this where the intermittency is not a problem. Glass is needed to make efficient solar collectors, and all but the simplest passive solar installations need electric motors and fans or pumps to move collected solar energy (hot air or water) to where you need it.

Wind Power

Wind power is also intermittent, and largely unpredictable as well, so either you need some way of storing the power or you need to use it in ways that can manage with an intermittent power source. Pumping water into storage containers at a higher level is one traditional example. Wind power has been used for grinding grain as well.

The towers, blades and gearing required as likely to be within the reach of village technology.

Hydro Power

Hydro power is slightly intermittent, but only on a seasonal basis and it is reasonably predictable. It can even be stored in head ponds to smooth out variations in load. It is doable with nineteenth century technology, and even simpler equipment if you use the mechanical power directly rather than generating electricity.

Tidal Power

There are a few location in the world where high tides can, with clever arrangements of dams, be used to drive water wheels or turbines. Tides are also intermittent, but quite predictable.

Biomass

Where I live, this would consist mainly of firewood, which can also be converted into wood gas or charcoal. It is useful for space heating, water heating, process heat, and can be both produced and used with very simple equipment. Of all these energy sources, biomass is the easiest to harness at the individual and family level, without setting up more complex community projects.

Wood gas can fuel internal combustion engines and firewood can fuel steam engines, both of which can power electrical generators. But this is only practical if there is wood left after vital uses like cooking and heating have been taken care of.

It is also vital to keep in mind that biomass is only a renewable resource if we use it at a rate slower than the rate at which it grows. Fortunately, forestry is a well established science and it can guide us in which trees to cut, how many of them, and how many and what type of new trees to plant.

Biogas

This is methane produced during anaerobic composting of manure and other organic materials. It can be useful in many ways, just like natural gas. But a lot of manure is needed to make useful quantities of biogas.

Muscle Power

For most of our history (and prehistory) energy mainly came from human or animal muscles. This has largely gone out of fashion in the industrial world, but I suspect that as collapse progresses, it will once again become the default where mechanical power is needed and nothing else is available.

Harnessing Local Energy Sources

There is a lot that can be done at the individual/family level to conserve energy, to make use of what's available locally, and to get by without electricity. But once you've decided to harness most of the energy sources above, a community effort will be required, especially if they are going to be used to generate electricity.

When talking about harnessing such energy resources, we must always consider whether the energy gathered will justify the energy and manhours used to build the equipment needed to gather it. Without the legacies I described above, I suspect the answer would more often than not be no, but with them, I think there is much that can be done. Remember that during the initial crisis of adapting to grid and supply chain break down in your area there will likely be some off-grid power systems to draw on.

At any rate, there is always the option of using these energy sources directly as heat or mechanical energy when we don't have electrical generating systems set up yet, or when they have failed beyond our capacity to repair. This also saves the inefficiencies involved in converting energy from one form to another, and the trouble of setting up distribution systems. Flour mills and saw mills are excellent examples.

Yes, at the start, the overpowering need will be for food, water and firewood, and a well organized community would divert available manpower to supplying those needs. But electrical equipment can actually make those tasks easier, replacing manhours with kilowatt hours, and doing some things, like lighting and refrigeration that no amount of manpower can do.

When the initial crisis has been overcome, there will be some spare manhours than can be spent on setting up a sustainable power system. I am terribly tempted to go into some specifics of what might be done, but it would have to get pretty technical and would make this post much longer than it should be.

Using Energy Wisely

In parts 11 and 12 of this series I included a list of important uses for electricity and alternatives to use during outages. But this time we're considering the permanent loss of the grid, and instead of coping temporarily with grid outages, we're talking about adapting to that permanent loss, either by generating our own power, by replacing it with other energy alternatives or practicing conservation—using less energy. We should be aware in advance that this will require some changes in the way we live.

Lights

Conservation is pretty simple here—we can do without lights at night, and set up workshops with windows to let in sunlight. But at higher latitudes, winter nights are long and much could be accomplished during them if we had artificial light.

Without electricity, you burn something to make light. Candle wax, kerosene, naphtha and propane are all based on fossil fuels and will not be available for long. Vegetable oil, animal fat, and alcohol will be locally available, but the source in each case is something that could also be used as food. If food is in short supply, lighting will have to suffer. This is one area where biogas could be quite useful.

My beloved mantle lamps will be hard to produce, as those mantles use salts of various elements that are not likely to be available locally to produce that bright white light.

If electricity is available, converting it to light is a bit of a challenge. We are in a sense spoiled by today's LED lights, which are highly efficient and long lasting. I've been reading recently that when they fail it is usually not the actual diode that fails, so I suspect ways will be found to refurbish them and keep them going for a long time. But the day will come when we have to go back to various sorts of arc lights and carbon filament incandescent bulbs.

Water

Here is Southern Ontario there is no shortage of good ground water, so I suspect wells with hand or wind driven pumps will be the thing. Friends in Australia and Hawaii tell me about their large outdoor water storage tanks. This looked odd to me and at first I wondered why we don't use such things here, but then I realized that they would freeze solid in the winter. In cold countries indoor cisterns are more practical and can be filled using rainwater, or well water pumped when the wind is blowing.

Electrically driven pumps will no doubt be used where power is available—they save a lot of hand pumping and are easy to control.

Sewage

There are many low tech ways of safely handling sewage. But we'll need to recover and use the plant nutrients and organic matter it contains, so I would think composting toilets will be very popular. I can recommend two books on the subject of composting human waste: The Humanure Handbook, by Joe Jenkins, and The Scoop on Poop, by Dan Chiras.

Food

Food is going to stop arriving regularly at the local supermarkets. To me, it seems that the necessary response would be to switch over to using locally grown food and growing much of it yourself, and to have enough food stored to last you through to the next harvest. There is a lot to say about this subject, but since it's not directly connected to electricity, I leave it for another post.

Cooking

Cooking is largely a matter of heating food, so we'll do it by burning biomass. Preferably in a nice indoor wood burning cookstove. I suspect the demand for those will go through the roof when it becomes more clear how things are going. Fortunately there are alternative that can be made by hand from local materials—mud/brick ovens, rocket stoves, etc. Google will lead you to all kinds of information on these.

Refrigeration

Where winter is sufficiently cold, the obvious solution is to use ice, harvested from frozen bodies of water, and to set up a well insulated icehouse to store that ice through the summer.

Ammonia based refrigeration uses heat as its power input, and should be within the reach of village level technology.

The kind of refrigeration we are all used to uses some variation of freon as its working fluid and electric motors to pump that fluid. I expect that once existing refrigeration equipment has worn out, freon will be too big a challenge to make locally and we will abandon the technology.

Heating

For space heating woodstoves are the obvious solution. As with cookstoves, I think at some point there will be a huge demand for heating stoves. Getting set up to heat with wood before you are forced to do so would be a good idea. If electricity is available, fans can be used to move air around the house and heat it more evenly.

Heating your house with wood takes a lot more wood than cooking. It you don't own a wood lot, you should find someone reliable who specializes in cutting, splitting and delivering firewood.

If you do own a woodlot, you'll likely be doing that for yourself. At some point gasoline won't be available to power chainsaws and you'll have to fall back on more traditional methods. Here is a series of posts on this subject by Category 5, another Canadian kollapsnik and blogger.

C5 Gets Wood:

 

Cooling

I covered this in some detail in part 12 of this series, here.

Communications

A small community which is generating its own electricity should be able to get its landline telephone system working again. Setting up a local broadcast radio station also sounds like a good project to foster community solidarity. And ham radio may be one of the few ways of finding out what is going on in the world. When modern solid state equipment wears out, vacuum tubes should be doable with village technology.

Transportation

Fossil fuel powered vehicles will no doubt be used until supplies of those fuels run out. It would be good to ration those fuels and see that they get used for the most critical purposes for as long as possible. It may be possible to convert some internal combustion engines to using wood gas to extend their usefulness.

Bikes are actually pretty high tech, and will eventually wear out beyond local repair, especially those rubber tires.

Horses and other draught animals will become extremely valuable, and we should do what we can in advance to encourage and support horse breeders.

Water transportation, using lakes, rivers, canals and powered by sail or muscles will grow in importance.

But walking will probably be the default mode of transporation, especially within the local area. And most of us will try to avoid having to make long trips.

Cottage Industry

I'm adding a new category here, because without the factories that now make all the goods we use, we will have to return to making them for ourselves. With modern knowledge, tools, equipment and electrical power, there is a great deal than can be done using local and salvaged materials. Acquiring the skills needed is something all of us should be working at. Pick an area that interests you and learn everything you can about it.

I bake bread and know a fair bit about growing grain and milling it. I make cheese and I know how to milk a cow. I weave wicker baskets and harvest willow that grows locally. As well as being an electrician, I am fairly good at carpentry, plumbing and drywall. These skills and a great many others will be needed and can be learned with some effort, if necessary from books and the internet while it lasts, but ideal from people who already know them.

Many years ago I started working on a degree in electrical engineering, but soon dropped out and apprenticed as an electrician instead. So the electrical parts of what I've been talking about here seem fairly straight forward to me. But I've been thinking recently that a degree in chemical engineering would be damn handy, or at least the equivalent knowledge, with a focus on low tech, small scale applications.

In Conclusion

Back in Part 10 of this series I said, "It seems to me that supplies of electrical power, diesel fuel and money will be at the heart of many of the troubles that lie ahead, so I'll concentrate on those areas." I think we've finally reached the end of the discussion on electrical power. Next time I'll talk about diesel fuel and the supply chains that rely on it.

Responding to Collapse, Part 13: Keeping the Lights on When the Grid Goes Down Forever

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on October 16, 2019

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Standing in for me this week is Joe Clarkson standing in for Irvine Mills. lol.

Hoping to get some energy back for next Sunday

RE


I'm doing something new this time, which is to publish a post that is almost entirely the work on one of my regular readers and commenters, Joe Clarkson, who lives off-grid on the Big Island of Hawaii. My knowledge of solar electric systems is entirely theoretical and I have always found that in the process of actually building something like this, one learns a great deal that isn't covered in the books. So I am pleased to present this material from someone who can speak with a much greater degree of practical experience than me.

I do have a few comments to make, but I'll save those for the end of the post.

-Irv Mills



Keeping the Lights on When the Grid Goes Down Forever

by Joe Clarkson

As someone who has lived most of my adult life in an off-grid home, I have had a lot of experience in managing the equipment needed to replicate the round-the-clock availability of electricity provided by the grid. That experience has been marked by a few failures but over the long haul our electrical supply has been more reliable than most utilities. That there is far more support available now than there was when I was setting up my first off-grid system back in 1975 (small hydro/diesel) makes living off-grid even easier. And since the rural neighborhood surrounding my home has homes that are all off-grid, I rarely hear the questions that many people asked me in years past, “Why do you live off the grid?” and What’s it like?”

The first question I answered by explaining that land without public utilities, like power and water, is almost always far less expensive than land with them. This is true, but I almost never went on to explain that I didn’t like the feeling of insecurity that came with being dependent on the grid. I have long felt that the grid is vulnerable to any number of disruptions, some of them likely to be permanent, and I wanted to live in a situation where I had more control over my electrical supply. Most people still think that attitude must also come with wearing a tin-foil hat.

The answer to the second question was that living off the grid was mostly like living on it. This is even more true now that solar panels have gotten so inexpensive that it is easy to have an ample supply of electricity. My current house is a sort of “legacy” off-grid home. It started out in 1986 with very little solar capacity (under 800 W), so everything was geared to minimizing the use of electricity. Thirty years ago, our electrical consumption was about 2 kWh per day at most. Now that I have 4 kW of solar PV capacity, we have become more profligate, even with the kids gone, and we use 4-5 kWh per day. A solar installer recently told me that he typically designs off-grid homes for a capacity of 20 kWh per day, just as much as the typical grid-connected home around here uses.

I have lived without electricity during two years serving in the Peace Corps and found it easy to do, albeit on a tropical atoll. This experience gave me a deeper understanding of the place electricity has in the modern world. I won’t be discussing that place here, although that is something that everyone should consider thoroughly before making plans for adapting to collapse. Instead, I will describe my way of replicating a modern household electrical system without the grid and my preparations for keeping it going as long as I can.

I know that if the grid goes down forever and business-as-usual becomes ever-accelerating collapse, it will be impossible to maintain an independent electrical system for the long term. But I would like to keep it going as long as possible, if only to ease the transition from a modern, high-energy life to one that will look a lot like life was here in Hawai‘i before contact with outsiders changed everything. These old bones are not ready for a life of subsistence agriculture and hunting-gathering in service to a feudal lord. That life will eventually come, if not for my wife and me, then for our children and their children, but I hope to make the transition as gradual as possible for all of us. If collapse is rapid, it also just might be the difference between life and death.

Our Home Power System Details

So, what kind of system do we have and how do we intend to keep it going during collapse? Our electrical supply is old-school and typical of many off-grid systems:

  • 4 kW of solar supply (Sixteen 250 W modules with an output of 24 V DC nominal but wired in series-parallel to about 140 V).
  • Two 80-amp MPPT solar charge controllers convert the solar output to 24 VDC for the battery.
  • 900 amp-hour lead-acid battery (12 cells at 2V each)
  • 4 kW inverter (2 Outback FX2024 operating in parallel at 120/240 VAC output)
  • 6 kW Northern Lights diesel generator

 

Inverters with solar charge controllers to the right

 

One half of 4 kW solar PV array.
The other half is on the roof of another building but looks identical.

 

Battery box 
(with concrete block to keep a visiting 4-year-old grandchild out), 
6kW genset, diesel supply in 55-gallon drum.

 

24 V battery
(12 Hawker flooded lead-acid cells, each 900 Ah)

 

24 VDC water pump inside concrete block enclosure

 

Solar hot water system with TV and Ham antennas behind.
80-gallon hot water tank is stainless steel.

 

240 VAC wood splitter runs off the solar electric system.

 

38,000-gallon water tank.
24 feet in diameter X 12 feet high.
Half the tank is underground.

The average solar incidence here in up-country Hamakua is low, only about 2.5 peak sun-hours per day. But with 4 kW of solar array, this is enough to average about 10 kWh per day, more than twice as much as we actually use. This means that we rarely need to use the back-up diesel to charge the batteries. Our average annual use of the generator is about 30-40 hours a year at a maximum charging rate of 2 kW. My estimate is that we use about 10 gallons of diesel a year in the generator.

The appliances serving the home are pretty typical except for refrigeration and water pumping. We have a washer and propane heated dryer, a propane range, propane back up water heater (rarely used since we also have ample solar water heating) the usual compliment of LED lighting and an assortment of communications and entertainment equipment (flat screen TV, a couple of computers, CD player and receiver), clothes iron, vacuum cleaner, bathroom appliances like hair dryer and toothbrushes, all being used at rates that would be typical in a grid connected house. We do power everything from power bars so that we can turn off equipment completely so as to avoid “ghost loads”.

Our refrigeration and water pumping are DC. This was originally for efficiency and power demand reasons, but over the years we have kept these appliances operating directly off the battery as a precaution against inverter failure. If the inverters fail, we can still have water and keep our refrigerator and freezer powered up. We would need to run the generator in the evenings two to three hours for light and for other electrical appliances, but it would save us from having to run the generator more often to keep the fridge cool and to pump water. Now that DC LED light bulbs are available, we may switch back to DC lighting, which would not be too difficult as the lighting load center is separate from the load center for the outlets (our lighting was originally DC).

Our water system is based on two corrugated steel tanks (including metal roofs) with heavy polyethylene liners. A 40,000-gallon main tank is filled with water from our roof and that water is pumped up to a 2,000-gallon tank about 100 feet higher than the house with a 24 VDC Shurflo pump. The little Shurflo pump only moves a couple of gallons per minute, but we only need to turn it on about once or twice a week for a few hours. (We have another piped water system with non-potable water for agriculture and livestock, but a description of that system is outside the scope of this post).

How much of these systems can we keep operating while adapting to collapse? In a collapse situation propane will be impossible to get. The clothes dryer can be abandoned totally to line drying (what we mostly do now), the back-up water heater can be shut down, and the range can be nursed along for a few months to a few years depending on the state of the 125-gallon propane tank at the time of propane delivery failure. For the longer term we have a wood cooking range on a covered lanai. This range would also be a source of hot water once I get the auxiliary water tank installation off my “to do” list.

So, the long-term energy sources for the house and farm are slated to be solar electricity and wood, with solar hot water for as long as the solar hot water modules last (perhaps 15 to 20 years). We have plenty of wood on the property and even have an electric wood splitter powered from the solar system. The wood range has a probable life measured in decades. We have a wood heater for those cool winter days (low 60s), but how to keep the solar system going?

The short answer for most of the power conversion equipment is to have plenty of spares. The inverters can be completely rebuilt with three circuit boards and a cooling fan for each inverter. Those parts are on the shelf. The inverters have been in continuous operation since 2006, so I expect them to need rebuilding in the next few years. The solar charge controllers have an estimated 15 to 20-year life and they are only about 7 years old, so with a spare for each the charge control system can last another 30-35 years. My current crop of solar panels is only about 5 years old, so they should last for a long time yet and I already have their replacements handy, since I bought another set for a second home that probably won’t get built after all. If we do finally build the second home, it will have a duplicate electrical system that can be intertied with our existing system, thereby increasing redundancy.

Here is a table summarizing the power system and the appliances operating from it:

Item

Estimated Life Span (Years)

Method of Repair

If Failure is Unavoidable

Solar PV modules

25-30

Replace with spares

Remove bad modules, rewire and use less electricity

Charge controllers

15-20

Replace with spares

Reconfigure PV to battery charging voltage and manually switch modules on and off (works only with flooded cell batteries)

Inverters

15-20

Rebuild with spare boards

Use DC appliances only or replace with legacy spare inverter (I have a couple of old Trace 2024 inverters in storage)

Battery

Wide variation

Replace with spares? Pick the battery with the longest possible life?

Use no electric equipment except any that can be operated directly off the solar array (DC motors, heaters)

Diesel generator

 

 

 

 

 

 

30

Have plenty of maintenance spares (belts, filters, etc.)

Greatly reduce electricity consumption in cloudy weather

Water pump

10

Replace with spares or rebuild with still-good parts from failed pumps

Haul water with buckets or install eave-level tank or install catchment roof at upper tank.

Corrugated water tanks

30-50

Reinforce weak areas with cables

Use any available vessel for water storage and hand carry water in buckets

Refrigerator

30

None

Evaporative cooling? Night radiation cooling?

Freezer

30

None

No frozen food

Washer

25

None

Hand wash with plunger. Have manual wringer on hand.

Propane dryer

30

None

Line dry everything all the time

Propane range

40

None

Substitute wood and wood range

Solar hot water modules

20

Substitute modules with spares?

Water heating loop in wood range

Stainless steel solar hot water tank

50

Move to wood range location

Batch heat water on stove

Household wiring

50+

Repair with spares

Live without electricity


Battery Considerations

Without an industrial civilization as backstop, the biggest hurdle to keeping a solar system going is the short life of the battery bank. My batteries have been well maintained, but they were three years old when I purchased them 8 years ago. They are nearing the end of their cycle life.

If it cannot be replaced by going to the nearest battery store, the main attribute a battery will need to have is the ability to operate over a large number of daily charge-discharge cycles. There are numerous comparisons of battery cost and cycle life on line. Most of those comparisons result in lithium-ion batteries being the best choice, especially if cost is not a determining factor, just because of their superior cycle life.

 

Many lithium-ion batteries are touted as having up to 10,000 cycles, even with 80% daily discharge. That would result in a life expectancy of 27 years even though they are typically guaranteed for only 10 years. Even though the cell chemistry could last as long as 27 years, my worry is that the sophisticated electronics that manage the charging of each cell in a lithium-ion battery will probably have a life expectancy of less than that.

I have not yet decided on a final battery replacement strategy. Here are some pros and cons for the best main choices (excluding price):

  • Lithium ion: proven long cycle life but delicate to charge and requires sophisticated electronic charge management system.
  • Lead-acid: Very forgiving if well maintained but have the shortest cycle life. It may be possible to store “dry charged” cells for many years before putting them in service.
  • Nickel-iron: Reputed to have a very long life and very forgiving of a simple charging system (similar to lead-acid). Very hard to damage except by using poor water for electrolyte replenishment. I am still not certain that the lifespan of this battery matches its reputation. Manufacturer literature suggests a cycle life between that of a good lead-acid battery and a lithium ion battery.

I am leaning toward lithium ion. I need to confirm the life expectancy of the typical battery management system and any needed protection from a solar charge controller failure.

I am also keeping an eye on the market for flow batteries for the home. These are quite new and have a limited track record, but should have very long life with easily replaceable pumps.

I am also tempted to see if I can craft build a pure-lead-plate battery from roofing lead sheet.

 

Conclusion

This post has covered a lot of expensive equipment, much of which my wife and I have acquired over many years. We feel very fortunate to have been able to do so. When one adds up the cost of a small parcel of decent farmland, a home and the outbuildings and equipment a small farm requires, including the equipment needed to provide electricity, water and heat for the home (including in-ground piping and electrical circuits) and other costs like livestock, fencing, roads, ponds, and land leveling, it becomes obvious that it takes a lot of money to prepare to eventually live without money.

I do know that the one thing that will always have value when adapting to collapse will be the skills it takes to help manage a small off-grid farm. Any person that has the ability to grow and hunt for food, manage livestock, operate energy and water systems and knows which end of a screwdriver to grab, is likely to find a place in a post-industrial-civilization world, even without a lot of money for preparation. I am still learning these skills and I started a long time ago. It’s past time to get started, so I recommend a crash course in practical trade skills to anyone that has few of them. Good luck to us all!



Wind and Hydro Power

Anticipating questions from our readers, I asked Joe about wind and water power. Here is what he had to say, which makes good sense to me. —Irv

I have had a small wind turbine as part of my array of battery charging sources and found it to be more trouble than it was worth. It was a Whisper 1000 and it really needed strong winds to produce much power. It also had a continuing series of mechanical problems, but I kept it going for a couple of years and then threw it away.

I have also had a lot of experience with the larger Bergey 10 kilowatt wind turbine on village power projects. It worked a little better than the Whisper but also required a lot of maintenance. Constant changes of blade leading edge protection tape, furling cable that broke and very high noise levels made it a pain to use. Now that solar modules are so inexpensive, I strongly advise against wind turbines except for large, grid-tied machines for commercial power producers.

Small hydro is another story. If a small stream with a reasonable head is available, small hydro can be a great charging source. I recommend going with a DC alternator to charge batteries and use an inverter for AC power. The small hydro system just substitutes for solar panels as a battery charging source.

If a larger stream is available, enough to generate the maximum power required at the site, then an all AC system can be installed. A load diversion governor is a lot cheaper than a variable geometry turbine. With a load diversion governor, the AC alternator is kept loaded at full output at all times and any unneeded power is electronically shunted to a waste load, typically a water heater element inserted in the penstock or a spa basin.

 

Small hydro is extremely reliable. The only difficult part is getting clean water into the penstock, which means that a lot of attention has to be paid to the intake structure and subsequent settling and screening equipment. Flood conditions put a great deal of force on the intake, so everything in the stream bed has to be very robust. The best small hydro sources are hillside springs, which avoid a lot of the issues with stream sources. Year around streams and springs are relatively rare, but if you have one they are great sources of energy. With enough head, it takes very little water to produce enough energy to power a homestead.

 


Irv again, with thanks to Joe. And now, just a few comments from me.

I agree very strongly with what Joe said in his conclusion about learning practical skills. If your work has you sitting in front of a computer pushing little bits of information around on the screen, and what you do for fun in you off hours never sees you touching a tool, it is time to start learning some of the skills that will be needed when BAU(Business as Usual) is no longer functioning.

Now back to the specifics of off-grid power systems:

One important thing to be clear about is that batteries don't like to be "cycled", that is, to be charged and discharged. Joe touched briefly on this, but I think it is important to emphasize.

Every time a battery is discharged and charged back up (cycled), it wears out a little bit and its capacity to store energy is reduced. The backup batteries that I maintained as an electrician in the power system were kept fully charged and only discharged during outages, and even then not too deeply discharged. They usually lasted for about 15 to 20 years.

In an off grid solar electric system, batteries are cycled fairly deeply on a daily basis. Joe estimates his current batteries will have a lifetime of around 11 years, which sounds about right to me.

The temperature where Joe lives ranges from the 50s to the 70s, Fahrenheit. This is, to say the least, less extreme than the temperatures we experience here in Southern Ontario ( -30° F to around 90° F.) And there are many places not that far north of here that get even colder in the winter. Precipitation around here also comes in various nasty forms in a addition to rain. Such as hail, freezing rain, sleet and snow.

This has some negative effects on solar panels, which are inevitably exposed to the weather, causing them to fail sooner. And of course their output is limited when they are covered in ice or snow.

Batteries function best when their temperature is in the 70s Fahrenheit. That means they need to be in a heated space in the winter. Lead acid and nickel iron batteries also need a well ventilated space due to the hydrogen created during charging and discharging. You probably wouldn't want them in your house due to the fire hazard. Lithium batteries don't given off hydrogen and can withstand more charge/discharge cycles, which is a major plus. But they are more expensive and required more complex charging controls.

I would appreciate hearing from any readers who are running solar electric systems with lead acid or nickel iron batteries in climates with cold winters.

 

I have some experience repairing battery chargers at the component level, but that equipment was built in the 1960s and 70s, used single layer, single sided circuit boards and discreet components rather than integrated circuits. It almost seemed as if it was designed with repair in mind.

 

Joe tells me that more modern equipment is less maintainable at the component level—about the best you can do is change out a whole board or module.

Acknowledging that, it still seems to me that there are quite a few people around who I would call tinkers, but who are currently referred to as "makers", at least some of whom have the knowledge, skills and equipment to salvage and refurbish/repurpose defective equipment when that becomes the only alternative. I think in some cases they will succeed in getting some extra life, maybe a few more decades, out of systems like Joe's. A way to make storage batteries using salvaged materials and a fairly low level of technology would be very helpful.

Finally, as Joe says, a system like his does not come cheap, and I suspect many of my readers will find themselves lacking the financial resources to set up anything close. And yet I've devoted this whole post to the idea, and I would recommend that those who can afford it should go ahead and set up such a system. Why so?

First of all, electricity is very useful and if you could extend it's availability by a few decades, it would be worth quite a bit to do so. In one's own domestic situation electric lighting, refrigeration and water pumping would be worth a lot, along with communications and entertainment.

Secondly, in the years after the grid finally fails us, I would like to think an attempt will be made to switch over to sustainable, "village level" technology and to utilize local energy sources to generate electricity. This transition would be greatly facilitated by off grid power systems of the type Joe describes.

A closer look at this transition and the positive legacies of the industrial world will be the subject of my next post.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

 
 

Responding to Collapse, Part 11: coping with power outages, the basics

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on August 25, 2019

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Storm moving in off Lake Huron, August 2019

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In my last post I talked about some of the problems with using "for profit" companies to provide infrastructure services and went on to look at how one major part of our infrastructure—the power grid—is likely to gradually fail over the coming years. I ended up looking at the effects of power outages, but ran out of space to cover how you can mitigate those effects and what your community can do to cope when it finally finds itself permanently isolated from the grid. I'll start talking about that today, but it looks like it's going to take three or four posts to cover this subject in the detail it deserves.

If you're following or considering following the suggestions I've been making in this series of posts, you're probably receptive to the idea of making preparations for collapse—possibly quite eager to get at it. The endgame here is the end of industrial civilization, with the grid shut down completely and the wells, mines, farms and factories it supports no longer running. So, you might think it would be a good idea to just dive in right now and go off grid.

In general, though, when preparing for any of the effects of collapse, it is important to remember kollapsniks like me have a pretty bad track record when it comes to attaching dates to our predictions. So the shape of your preparations should be such as to not squander your resources and leave you broke or in debt when the apocalypse doesn't happen a week from Tuesday. Ideally your preparations should enhance your life as BAU (business as usual) continues to gradually wind down, as well as making it possible to get by when BAU is finally gone. Which may be quite a way down the road as yet.

When most people talk about going off grid, they are talking not about doing without electricity but about generating some of their own, in order to maintain a certain level of modernity in their lifestyle. To do this requires access to two things: an energy source or sources and technology that can convert that energy into electricity. It is also helpful to be able to store the electricity you generate if your energy source is intermittent.

Today's consumer society makes energy sources, generating equipment and batteries readily available. This, unfortunately, will involve a significant upfront investment, the electricity you produce is likely to be more expensive than the electricity you can buy from the grid, and you won't have really gained any long term degree of independence from BAU. If you can afford it, this may be one way of setting up to weather power outages with a good degree of comfort and convenience. I suspect, though, that many of my readers are not wealthy enough to spend many thousands of dollars on an off grid power system.

It is probably true that at some point, as grid power increases in cost and decreases in reliability, home generated power becomes a winner. But at that point you'd also like to become much more independent of BAU, so a different approach will be required, and whether you can arrange to have electricity at all without relying on BAU for fuel, equipment or spare parts is a serious question. Which I'll get into in a post just a little way down the road.

But first, let's get back to the issue of coping with power outages. The effects of such outages, especially longer ones, are so far reaching that it is overwhelming to think of coping with them all. So I'll just concentrate on the most immediately impactful: lighting, cooking, refrigeration, food, water, sewage, heating, cooling, communications and transportation. Not necessarily in that order.

I'm going to divide the rest of this into four sections, each of which deals with a different sort of response to the challenge of power outages, roughly speaking in increasing order of expense and personal commitment. The first of those sections will be covered in the rest of this post and the final three in my next few posts.

I am assuming that many of my readers are convinced enough of the inevitability of collapse that they already have or are seriously considering moving to a remote small town and are eager to do some preparation, but they may be limited in their financial resources and practical skills. Sections 1 and 2 will cater to those limits.

1) Short Outages, minimal response

In the case of short outages, you can simply do without for a few hours, and experience little more than minor inconvenience. Indeed, the most important technique I can recommend for coping with any of the effects of collapse is to be ready to cheerfully accept some loss of comfort and convenience.

Around here, minor outages used to last from 2 to 4 hours. Now it's more like 4 to 8 hours, which is almost entirely due to power companies trying to save money on staffing. Most of us have lived through a few of these, especially in rural areas where power is distributed via overhead lines strung on wooden poles. This is, realistically, part of living in an industrial civilization—the cost of eliminating all outages would be too high.

So kick back, read a book and wait for the power to come on. Of course, if the power is still off after sunset that book is going to be hard to read, and it sure would be nice to have a flashlight and/or some candles. A little more thought and you'll soon realize that there are a few things that aren't terribly expensive and which would make short power outages much less of a nuisance.

Even people who don't accept the "collapse narrative" will benefit from some basic preparation of this sort. At this point (August 2019) all the resources of BAU are still available to consumers, so everything you'll need can be had very easily.

Lighting

Flashlights and batteries

In the short run, the lost of electric lighting is one of the main things to prepare for and also one of the easiest. You don't want to be stumbling around in the dark as you do the things you'll want to do to cope with an outage. And once that's out of the way, you're going to find it pretty boring without all the electronic entertainment you're used to. It takes light even to enjoy books and board games. At this basic level, you'll use flashlights and/or candles to provide light.

Flashlights have improved a lot in the last few years. LEDs have replaced incandescent bulbs, increasing battery life and making flashlights much sturdier. These days the best batteries have a shelf life of around 10 years, so that you can leave your flashlight sitting on a shelf for along time and not end up with dead batteries or a corroded mess. And I guess if you plan on using a flashlight a lot, one with rechargeable batteries would be a good idea. One useful variation on that idea is a flashlight with rechargeable batteries and a built in hand cranked generator.

In emergency situations, a flashlight is especially handy when you need to move around in the dark. They also don't present a fire hazard the way candles do.

In the photo on the right are the flashlights found around our house and car, all of which were purchased at Canadian Tire. (Canadian tire is a chain of automotive/hardware/houseware/sports and garden stores here in Canada. If you live outside Canada don't know what you are missing.) At the back is a worklight that takes 4 AA cells and produces a startling amount of light for along time. Comes with a hook to hang it by and magnets in the base to stick to any iron or steel surface. In the middle is a Garrity handcranked flashlight. Thirty seconds of vugorous cranking gives you 3 to 5 minutes of light, depending on how dim you're willing to let it get before cranking it up again. At the front on the left is the Maglite single AAA flashlight that I carry on my keychain. Put out 47 lumens. Second from the left at the front is the Maglite 2 AA flashlight that we keep in the glove box of our car. Puts out 97 lumens. On the front right is a cheap 3 AAA flashlight that only puts out 60 lumens.

Candles and holders, matches and lighter

Candles are good too, especially as a stationary source of illumination. Unfortunately most candles don't come with built in holders and being tall and skinny, don't stand up very well on their own. So it is a good idea to have a few candle holders around the house, sized to fit whatever kind of candle you keep in stock. In the front right of the photo to the right is a tea light, which comes with a built in holder and doesn't take up much space. Useful in emergency bags.

Since candles don't light themselves, you'll need matches or a lighter of some sort. Nobody smokes in our family, so the lighter we have is made for lighting barbeques, but works fine for lighting candles and our woodstove as well. The long nose keeps you hand back a bit from whatever you're trying to light.

Water

Water storage in the cold room at our house

Water is your next most urgent need. And while the municipal water supply or your own pressure system may continue to supply enough water for drinking and washing for a short period, it is wise to have a few gallons of potable water stored away. It is usually recommended that you have one gallon per person per day just for drink and washing.

Water from a chlorinated municipal water supply does not need further treatment when stored in clean, food-grade containers. Non-chlorinated water should be treated with bleach. Add 8 drops of liquid household chlorine bleach (5 to 6% sodium hypochlorite) for every 4 litres (one gallon) of water. More details can be found here and here.

I'm not, by the way suggesting you go out and get a few cases of bottled water in single use 500 ml plastic bottles. First off, if you can't drink your tap water, you're living in the wrong place. Second, bottled water is an expense you should avoid. Third, those bottles are a serious waste problem. If you're strapped for cash, save food grade plastic containers that you would otherwise throw out, wash them and use them to store water. Things like 2 litre beverage bottles, juice bottles, and so forth. And if you can afford a relatively small investment, you can easily get sturdy purpose built water bottles that hold 20 litres (5 gallons) and have a built in spigot. In the photo above there is also a blue 2.5 gallon water container from Canadian Tire that we use when travelling.

Our 60 gallon
electric water heater

Another source of water is your water heater which probably holds 40 or 60 gallons of potable water. If it's never been flushed then the water at the bottom, which will come out first, will probably be rusty. The drain valve is also probably very close to the floor, and you likely need a screwdriver or wrench to operate that valve. Best to check this out in advance and make sure you have the required tools and a pan that will fit under the valve to catch the water. In any case it's also a good idea to flush your water tank annually.

Sewage

Safe handling of human waste is an important public health issue. And when you gotta go, you gotta go—it really is an emergency. Even during a short power outage, the odds are that someone in your home will need to use the facilities.

You probably have a flush toilet hooked up to a septic tank and weeping bed or to municipal sewers. The septic tank and weeping bed is likely gravity fed, so it is OK to use the toilet even when the power is off. Municipal sewers may be gravity fed, but it is likely that some parts of town are downhill from the sewage processing plant and rely on electrically powered pumps to make things flow in the right direction. I live in such a location and the town used to show up with a vacuum truck during outages and use it to make sure that our sewers didn't back up. Recently they installed some upgrades, including backup generators for critical sewage pumps. It wouldn't hurt to check into the situation in your town.

Your toilet is good for one flush using the water in its tank. If you've made no other preparations, you need to make the most of that flush, and not waste it when there is nothing more than urine in the bowl. Then you need to be looking for a source of flushing water, which you can just pour into the bowl to make the toilet flush. Many sources of water that you wouldn't want to drink are fine for flushing a toilet. The rusty water from the bottom of your water heater is certainly OK, as is rain water and surface water from streams and ponds. A five gallon (20 litre) bucket is useful to have if you are reduced to scrounging flush water from such sources.

Emergency bucket toilet
with waste bags

People like me, who grew up on farms and have spent some time in the bush, are not above finding a secluded spot outdoors to urinate, and in a pinch even to defecate. Though it is important to realize that feces are a health hazard to other people using the area. This brings us to the idea of emergency toilets which you can put together quickly. Here are several good articles on the subject:
How to create an emergency toilet
Make and use an emergency toilet

Amazon will be glad to sell you a bucket, seat, lid and waste bags, all ready to go. Or you can buy just the seat, lid and waste bags, and supply your own bucket.
Portable Toilet Bucket with Seat and Lid Attachment

I would recommend having one of those emergency bucket toilets on hand. I don't have one because I have a Jenkins style sawdust toilet made up and ready to go for emergency use. These are often called composting toilets, but only because when the bucket gets full you can dump it in your compost pile. The legality of doing that with human waste varies from place to place, so it is best to be discreet.

Food and Cooking

During short outages you can either go hungry for a few hours (it won't kill you) or have some food on hand that can be eaten without cooking.

Refrigeration

Your concern here will be that food in your refrigerator don't spoil and frozen food in your freezer doesn't thaw.

Food in your refrigerator should be OK for up to about 4 hours provided you don't open the door too often and let the cold air out. If you freezer is full, food should be safe in it for about 48 hours, 24 hours if it is half full. If your freezer isn't full, it is a good idea keep some ice in it for increased thermal mass. I use several jugs of water, which freeze after they are put in the freezer. It might also be a good idea to open the door of your refrigerator just once and put in a jug or two of ice from your freezer.

Some good advice on keeping food safe during an emergency can be found here.

Frozen food that still has ice crystals and feels cold is usually safe to refreeze. Frozen food that has thawed out, and food that normally requires refrigeration, and has been above 40 degrees F. for more than 2 hours, should be discarded.

Heating and Cooling

If you've chosen your location carefully, you should be able to get by without air conditioning, and just suffer through the few hottest days in summer. Shade and ventilation will help, as will moving heat generating activities like cooking outdoors. And believe it or not, if you stay out of air conditioned spaces for a few days, you will get used to the heat. Try to take it easy though, until you've adapted.

Here's some good advice on how to stay comfortable and safe during hot weather.

The same careful choice of location will, unfortunately, put you in some pretty cold weather in the winter. If your home is well insulated and well sealed it shouldn't cool things off more than a few degrees during a short outage.

But just in case things get worse than that, here's some good advice on keeping warm in a winter weather emergency. The basic idea is to limit the spaces you're trying to heat, and whenever possible to heat humans, not spaces.

Communications

Handcranked and battery operated radios

You may want to call the power company to let them know about the outage and to contact family and friends to see if they need help. Your cell phone, if it is charged up, will probably work through a short outage as will your land line phone. But if your landline phone is a cordless one, it won't work unless there is power to the base station, so get at least one old fashioned directly wired phone and make sure it works if it is not connected to a power source.

A battery operated radio is also a good idea, for both information and entertainment. The handcranked radio on the left (a Grundig FR-200) in the photo to the right inlcudes a flashlight and receives AM, FM and 2 shortwave bandsworks. It work off 3 AA cells as well as the buildin rechargable battery. Sadly, the quality of the souond is poor, and it doesn;t discriminate between closely adjacent stations very well. The small Sony boom box onthe right takes 6 D cells and works just fine off them or 120VAC. The sound quality is great and it plays cassette tapes and CDs as well as AM and FM radio.

Transportation

Personally, I would advise staying off the roads during a short outage. Traffic lights aren't likely to be working and those who are on the roads may be panicky and not thinking straight. But just in case you do have to go somewhere, it's a good idea to keep your fuel tank at least half full. That's a good idea in any case, really.

Miscellaneous

If you work at home using a computer losing unsaved work in the event of a power outage can be expensive. Of course a laptop with a good battery will allow you to save your work before shutting down. If, like me, you are still using a desktop computer, a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) is a really good idea.

When the power comes back on the voltage is likely to be quite low due to heavy loading. This can cause problems for voltage sensitive equipment like motors and electronics. You can do your part to help with this problem by turning off heavy loads such as your electric furnace or baseboard heaters in cold weather or air conditioners in hot weather, and also your water heater, stove and clothes dryer. And to be safe, disconnect sensitive equipment like refrigerators, freezers, computers and televisions.

In Closing

You can make these few, simple preparations even if you're living in an apartment where you can't make big changes to the infrastructure. And it won't cost you very much, either. Everyone should have these basics under control.

But I would guess that along with a few short outages the immediate future holds the possibility of one or more substantially longer outages, which will do much to change our complacent attitudes and render us eager to be more prepared.

In my next post I'll cover a higher level of preparation, still achievable on a tight budget and still relying on BAU for supplies and equipment, but suited to coping with longer and more frequent outages.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

Responding to Collapse, Part 10: the future of the power grid

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on July 17, 2019

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In this series of posts I've been advising my readers that moving to a small town remote from large population centres, in an area that can supply the basic necessities of water, food and firewood, is a prudent way of coping with the ongoing collapse of BAU (Business as Usual). With the caveat that some advance preparation will be needed to ensure successful use of those resources.

 

 

In the next few posts in this series, we'll look at some of the details of how BAU will collapse and how you can prepare to weather that collapse. In the immediate future infrastructure breakdowns will get more frequent and longer until finally it's no longer practical to rely on BAU for the necessities of life. It seems to me that supplies of electrical power, diesel fuel and money will be at the heart of many of the troubles that lie ahead, so I'll concentrate on those areas.

And while I'll mainly be talking about infrastructure breakdowns we should remember that interruptions of service can occur for a couple of other reasons.

The first has to do with the way our economy is organized and how we choose to provide vital services such as power, water, sewers, housing, food, communications, transportation, education, health care and so forth.

Today most of the world's nations are capitalistic, with a distinct neo-liberal flavour. Under such conditions, companies are operated to make a profit and other goals, such as the public good, are strictly secondary. So when a "for profit" company finds its business becoming less profitable they must find ways to increase their charges or to supply less for the same fees or to quit supplying customers in less profitable areas altogether. And if they don't do those things they will either be bought out by companies that will, or they'll suffer bankruptcy. If there doesn't appear to be much chance that another company could make a good profit in the same business then it will never be reestablished. And if the public was relying on that company to provide vital services, then we are just out of luck.

Of course there are other ways of organizing an economy, and in particular other ways of setting up companies to provide infrastructure services. But the argument is often made that for profit companies operating in a free market are more efficient. I would question if there has ever been any such thing as a free market, and whether it would function as predicted in any case. Efficiency in this case is defined as the amount of return on share holders' investments, and has nothing to do with providing a high quality and reliable service to your customers.

But perhaps we should set all that aside in order to focus on the really critical thing, which is the difference between the way such companies work in growing economies versus contracting economies. In a growing economy it is relatively easy to make a profit and do so while supplying a service for the public good. But when the economy begins to contract that becomes more and more difficult for "for profit" companies.

Governments can set up non-profit organizations whose primary goal is to provide services for the public good and they are likely to last longer in a contracting economy. In my experience, contrary to typical capitalist propaganda, they can also be quite efficient. But as the economy contracts so will tax revenues and eventually governments will have to cut back on the services they provide. With good planning though, they can do this in a controlled manner with lots of advanced warning, and give people time to adapt to the situation.

As the economy gets even weaker, co-operatives organized by the people who need the services hold considerable promise. I'll have more to say about this over the next few posts.

The second thing is that if you rely on BAU to make a living, you will find that your own economic circumstances are declining. When you can no longer afford the services you have come to rely on, you'll have find ways to provide them for yourself, and in the process learn how to get by with less, like it or not.

I can consume along with the best of them, and there are certainly all kinds of things that it would be useful to have as we try to become more self reliant. But don't worry too much if you can't afford some of the shiny toys I'll be mentioning in future posts. As well trained consumers we may feel that buying things must be the solution to the problems that face us, but it isn't. Actually, there is no solution to the fix the world is in at the moment, and the best we can do is adapt to the changing conditions. Part of that is learning to get by while consuming less. This is hard for me and I'll bet it's hard for you too. That's why I talked first about preparing by become part of your new community (in posts 7 and 8 of this series), rather that the less important preparations that involve accumulating "stuff".

Back 2012, when I started this blog, the authorities recommended that you be prepared to weather emergencies lasting for as long as three days (72 hours). They were basically saying, "don't rely on us to be there immediately—it may take as long as 72 hours before help arrives." In the meantime, this has been changed to two weeks in some areas. Is emergency response capability declining, or are they expecting more lengthy and severe emergencies? I suspect both. Of course serious "preppers" are laughing at this—they'd recommend that you have supplies on hand for a year or two. I don't disagree, but you have to start somewhere. And as collapse deepens those longer intervals to prepare for will come to seem more reasonable.


Power Outages

Power outages will probably be the most frequent infrastructure failure you'll have to cope with. Short outages have relatively minor impacts, but because electricity is at the heart of so much that goes on in modern civilization, as outages stretch out they start to effect more and more things.

Eventually, it seems very likely that the power grid in many, if not most, areas will cease to function. I encounter two different responses to this idea. Many people cannot conceive that their 24 hour a day, essentially infinite supply of power could every come to an end. Others are fixated on the idea of a sudden and hard crash which will bring the whole of industrial civilization to an end, including the power grid.

I'm somewhere in between, holding what I think is a more detailed and nuanced opinion. Most of the rest of this post is going to be spent talking about how the slow decline of the power grid will go, leaving the responses I would recommend for the next post.

Power outages can be as simple as a utility pole getting knocked over during a traffic accident, to as complex as the grid failures that happened in northeastern North America in 1965 and 2003. And to take it even further, EMPs (electromagnetic pulses) from nuclear weapons or coronal mass ejections (solar flares) can do huge damage to electrical girds which may be very hard to recover from. But I think some of the most common and serious problems with the grid will come from three specific areas:

  • The first is equipment failure due to age and/or lack of maintenance, aggravated by overloads such as air conditioning load during summer heat waves. As the economy continues to contract power companies are going to find themselves short of capital and less able to invest in their own systems, leaving those systems more susceptible to failure. /li>
  • The second will be damage due to storms that are growing more frequent and more intense due to climate change—things like high winds, tornados and ice storms in particular. Lengthy outages will happen when there are widespread weather related problems combined with shortages of spare parts and limited manpower to install them. Those latter two problems will come mainly from cash strapped utilities trying to save money.
  • The third is sabotage. The grid is very exposed to a saboteur who knows what he is doing, and because of its geographically diffuse nature, very hard to secure. As collapse intensifies, there will be increased civil unrest—more angry people looking for easy targets that symbolize the establishment. The grid is certainly one such target.

Of course, these concerns apply to the grid as it exists today, using conventional generation. It seems there is going to be a serious attempt to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, primarily solar and wind. Those who are pushing for a "Green New Deal" are telling people that we can use wind and solar to replace fossil fuels, and that in the process more jobs will be created and we'll actually end up more prosperous. This is a very unrealistic dream and just off the top of my head I can think of four serious problems with it:

  1. What solar and wind produce is electricity. But electricity supplies only 18 to 20% of our current energy use. Most of the rest comes directly from coal, oil and natural gas, and those fuels are used in ways that will be difficult, if not outright impossible, to replace with electricity.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    The main issue is that a battery is not nearly as effective a way to store energy as a tank of diesel fuel. And there are definite physical limitations on how much better batteries can get— we can probably improve them by a factor of two, but that's about it. Despite what we keep hearing in the news, it simply isn't practical to use batteries to power airplanes or long distance heavy transport by road, rail or sea. The quantity of batteries needed, and the size and weight of those batteries, is the problem.

    There are many industrial processes that use coal or natural gas for heat. Replacing those fuels with electricity may be theoretically possible but we haven't, for the most part, even started to develop ways to do so, much less begun to implement them.

  2. Phasing out fossil fuels would require using renewables to supply much larger quantities of electricity than we are currently using. But there are fundamental problems with using renewables to produce even part of the comparatively small amount of electricity we use now.

    One aspect of running a power grid that the general public is largely unaware of is that generation must be matched exactly to the load. Since load is something the grid operator cannot control to any great extent, generation that is "dispatchable"—that can be turned on and off on demand and ramped up and down as required—is very important. Conventional generation is dispatchable to varying degrees but renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are intermittent and for the most part not under the control of the grid operator—the very opposite of dispatchable. As such, renewables only exacerbate the problems of running a grid, especially given the lack of feasible large scale storage technologies. Yes, I know there are a number of storage technologies available but none of them are economical to use on the scale that would be required for use in a power grid with intermittent renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

    The concept of a "smart grid" which gives greater control of both generation and load offers hope of addressing these problems to some minor degree, but only at the price of adding complexity to the system. And adding complexity never increases reliability.

  3. The immediate reason for switching away from fossil fuels is to reduce the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere in order to combat climate change. But no one seems to be thinking of the carbon footprint of switching away from carbon. The switchover to renewables would be a massive undertaking powered mainly by fossil fuels, and the amount of CO2 being released would greatly increase during that effort.

    Much of this construction effort would also require large quantities of steel and concrete. Making steel and concrete involves the release of CO2, regardless of where the energy comes from—it's inherent to the chemistry of the processes involved.

    So it is by no means obvious that we can get off fossil fuels and onto renewables without creating an even worse climate crisis that the one we are currently facing.

  4. Renewables have a very low EROEI (energy returned on energy invested). A high EROEI is essential to the functioning of a modern industrial economy–money is just accounting, energy is really what makes the economy go. Any country which adds a large quantity of renewables to its energy mix will lower its overall average EROEI, making it more difficult to support a growing economy and a high tech industrial society. So even if we could somehow manage to switch over entirely to renewables, we'd have trouble sustaining a high enough level of technology to maintain and repair solar and wind generation facilities. And replacing them when they wear out would be a real stretch. Switching to renewables is something we might be able to do once, but then we'd be in big trouble.

 

All this is of course based on not having to change our lifestyles, not having to accept a lower level of prosperity and consumption. Indeed one frequently hears people talking about increasing economic growth in order to bring the poor parts of the world up to our level of consumption. It is clear to me that this is not going to happen and that what we really need to do is reduce our levels of consumption down to what can be supported without fossil fuels, using local, sustainable, low tech renewables. It is also clear to me that we will not do this voluntarily, that the majority of our efforts will go into maintaining business as usual regardless of the consequences.

Give all these factors time to work and it will become difficult to continue running the power grid as a whole. Some parts of the gird will simply quit working. Others that have proved unreliable, which place the grid as a whole at risk, will eventually have to be excluded from the grid. These islands will grow until the grid as we know it falls apart.

There will be a few areas where generating equipment will continue to function for a long time and will be able to supply local load. Again, the matching generation and load will be a problem since most such generation comes in large chunks and is a long way from large amounts of load. The most hopeful situations are small hydro (water) powered generators, which can be run at less than full capacity and adjust quickly to match varying loads.

Anyway, it seems clear that we can indeed expect more frequent and longer power outages. But what are the effects of these outages, and what can we do to mitigate them?


The effects of power outages

When the power goes out, you lose the lights, heat, cooling, cooking equipment, refrigeration and so forth in your own home. Even most oil, gas and wood heating systems rely on electricity for control, ignition and circulating fans. Then there are all the services that comes to you from outside your home, that you rely on to just work, but which need electricity to do that.

In general, the most critical services run off batteries which are kept fully charged as long as the power is on. When the power goes out, these services keep right on running as if nothing had happened, at least until the batteries are discharged. The batteries for the controls in power stations are rated for eight hours. The batteries in cell phone towers are rated for two to four hours.

Everything I'm finding on the internet says that the central switching stations for land line telephone service should keep working even during long power outages, which implies both batteries and backup generators. I have some doubts about this, and I'll be keeping an eye out for more detailed information.

Many slightly less critical services have generators that start automatically with only a brief interruption when the power goes out and run as long as there is fuel (usually diesel fuel) in the tank. If arrangements have been made to refill that tank, then this can go on for quite a long time.

Even less critical services than these can have a portable generator hooked up to them if need be. This would include facilities operating on battery power, if the power is off so long that the batteries need to be recharged.

Most service stations don't have backup power so you likely won't be able to get fuel (gasoline, diesel, propane) while the power is off. During long outages the many supply chains that are powered by gasoline and/or diesel fuel will be in trouble.

Natural gas pipelines have to be pressurized to keep to gas flowing through them. Some of the pumps used to do this are powered by natural gas, some by electricity. And I suspect that at least some of the controls for the gas powered pumps are electrical. So your natural gas supply, at least in some areas, will be compromised during electrical outages.

The pumps in municipal water and sewage systems need electrical power too. Some may have backup generators, but not all. If you live on a farm or in a very small town, your toilet is likely gravity feed into a septic system and weeping bed, and will work as long as you have water to flush them. Or perhaps you have already set up a composting toilet which requires no power at all. Your water supply is probably from you own well, with a pump driven by an electric motor that uses 240V AC (if you are in North America). Even if you have a generator, you may need an electrician to help you hook it up to that motor.

Refrigeration of food in grocery stores and pharmaceuticals in pharmacies and hospitals will be jeopardized. Fortunately our local hospital does have a backup generator.

Radio and TV can be important sources of information during emergencies. But you will likely find that only a very few of your local stations are set up to keep broadcasting during power outages.

It would also be great if internet service could continue during power outages. I understand it some areas it does, but we get our internet through the local cable TV company, and even short outages to their facilities knock out our internet connection and our cable TV service, even if the power is still on at our place. Your situation may be different—I hope so.

Oddly, or so it seems to me, most traffic lights aren't backed up in any way and stop working when the power is off.

ATMs won't be working, nor the systems that allows us to pay for things by credit and debit cards. Even if you do have cash in hand, you may find many retail outlets are unable to sell you anything when their cash registers and product code scanners aren't working. Many of them may just lock their doors for the duration of the outage.

Not all of them, though—I was quite impressed during a recent outage when I saw the guy behind the counter at a nearby convenience store beavering away with a cash box, battery operated calculator and a notebook to record sales in. It can be done, but one hopes the prices are marked clearly on items rather than encoded in UPCs. This is an example of an individual (or maybe his manager) taking the situation in hand and keeping things working rather than sitting back and letting them fall apart.

No doubt I am missing many of the potential effects of long power outages, but I think this gives you the flavour of what you'll be facing. Next time I'll talk about how you can mitigate the effects of power outages, both short and long, and what your community can do to cope when it finally finds itself permanently isolated from the grid.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

 

Responding to collapse, Part 3: Declining Surplus Energy

 

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on October 26, 2018

 
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In my last post I talked about responding to changes in our "natural" environment caused by climate change. Today I'll be talking about responding to changes in the human part of our environment, the part that we have created, both the "built" physical environment and the social environment.

We are social animals and also technological (tool using) animals. For the last few million years our ancestors evolved to live in groups and use technology. In one way of looking at it, our techniques for working together in groups are an organizational technology that greatly amplifies what we could do alone.

At any rate, for a long time now we have been dependent on technology—we certainly aren't much good alone, naked and empty handed. Technology needs energy to make it work and for most of our history that energy has come from food via muscles (human or animal), biomass (mainly firewood), and to a lesser extent wind, moving water and the sun. But over the last couple of centuries we've added cheap and abundant fossil fuels to that mix of energy sources. We've gradually become dependent on a global network of complex technology powered by those fuels for the very necessities of life.

This is a cause for concern—what if energy were to become more expensive and/or less abundant? As it certainly seems likely to do in the near future. Well, in short, the way we live would have to change, becoming less energy intensive, and it seems very likely that the planet would no longer be able to support so very many of us. It can barely support the number of us that are alive today, so this would mean a significant dieoff of the human population. And the climate change related problems we talked about last time will only make this worse.

Of course this is nothing new. I've discussed the ideas of carrying capacity, overshoot and dieoff many times over the years on this blog. But the devil, as they say, is in the details and if we are to discuss strategies for living through collapse, we need to look closely at those details.

The economy is a major and critically important part of the modern human environment and one that is fueled by energy, so I see depletion of fossil fuel energy resources (often referred to as Peak Oil) as the major challenge as far as the human built environment goes. To really understand that challenge, it is important to understand a bit about "biophysical" or "surplus energy" economics. Have a look at those links for more detail, but I'll try to explain in brief.

First, why is energy so critical to the functioning of the economy? Modern industrial processes are significantly more productive than the cottage industry of just a few hundred years ago, and it requires a lot of energy to make them work. The energy that drives these processes is worth far more in terms of the goods it produces than the price that industry pays for it. As such, energy is far more than just another commodity. And it must be abundant and cheap, if industry is to be profitable and the economy is to continue growing.

Second, why are fossil fuels such an important source of energy? Basically because they have been abundant, cheap and convenient to use. When I say cheap, I am not just talking about the cost in dollars, but in the amount of energy it takes to access fossil fuel energy. This is defined as the "Energy Returned on Energy Invested" (EROEI). Early in the twentieth century, when oil came into prominence as an energy source, it took just one barrel of oil to get 100 barrels of oil out of the ground—the EROEI was 100. The "surplus energy" was over 99% and this was a tremendous stimulus for economic growth.

Since we have developed fossil fuel resources on a "lowest hanging fruit" basis, the easiest to access, highest quality sources have gradually been used up. Modern oil discoveries rarely have an EROEI better than 10. Unconventional sources of oil, such as fracking and tar sands, have even lower EROEIs. And sadly, the renewable energy sources that are being considered to replace fossil fuels also have very low EROEIs. Even lower if you add in the energy storage required if intermittent sources like wind and solar are to be put into practical use.

The important thing to understand here is that there is a very clear link between the average EROEI of a country's energy sources and the strength of its economy. As that average EROEI goes down, industry starts to become less and less profitable. Below 15 this gets very serious—it becomes difficult to raise capital to start new endeavours and existing businesses find it hard to stay profitable. As the average EROEI decreases further, infrastructure replacement and even routine maintenance of infrastructure becomes difficult to fund. Industrial civilization starts to crumble and the kinds of heroic efforts it would take to save it are beyond its capabilities.

Conventional economists are blind to this and assume that as one energy source runs out, demand will successfully fuel efforts to find a substitute. Without a clear understanding of EROEI, evaluating the merits of such substitutes can be very difficult. Already we are seeing "energy sprawl" as wind turbines and solar panels are springing up everywhere, but with such low EROEIs that they are actually lowering the average EROEIs of the systems they are being added to.

Some people argue that there are huge reserves of unconventional fossil fuels, enough to last for centuries, "so where's the problem?" The problem is that these unconventional hydrocarbons have such low EROEIs that they are not a solution—pursuing them just makes things worse.

The same is true of nuclear fission—lots of fuel, but such a low EROEI (around 9) that it's no help. If at some point we manage to design practical fusion reactors, it is pretty clear that they will be so complex that their EROEI will be even lower than fission reactors, making the abundance of fusion fuel a moot point.

The essence of our situation here in the early twenty first century is that the problem of declining surplus energy doesn't have a solution. Of course, in addition to that underlying and insoluble problem, there are lots of things wrong with our social/governmental/economic systems that make the situation even worse. Definitely it would help to fix these problems, but it is important to keep in mind that, even if they were all fixed, everything wouldn't suddenly be OK—the main problem would still exist. And because of declining surplus energy, it's going to get harder and harder to fix anything.

So, what to do? Well, we just have to adapt to these new realities. Here I am going to borrow some ideas from Prof. Jem Bendell's essay "Deep Adaptation", particularly his three Rs.

Bendell is mainly concerned with climate change and after doing a review of the current findings of climate science, he concludes that "collapse is inevitable, catastrophe is likely and extinction is possible". Considering declining surplus energy and the resulting economic contraction as well as climate change leads me to the same conclusions, maybe more so. Even without any catastrophic events, the slow collapse of industrial civilization, brought on by the falling EROEI of its energy sources, is surely an inevitability. And we should be planning our response to such a slow and tedious collapse, which will require a great deal of adaptation to our new circumstances.

There are many forms of denial that people fall into when faced with the certainly of collapse. Not surprisingly, most people see their continued livelihood and their feelings of self-worth as being dependent on the possibility of ongoing material progress. This is the "religion of progress" which is so central to our modern society. Collapse, of course, means the end of material of progress, and immersion in a complex predicament beyond our control. Admitting this is even possible has, at least initially, a crushing effect on most people.

But, for those who have overcome their denial, Bendell's three Rs hold the key to successful adaptation.

First comes "Resilience". This means having the personal resources—emotional toughness to keep going in the face of collapse and the willingness to adapt to conditions that we have been taught are simply unacceptable (involving a significant reduction in our level of comfort and convenience). I am currently reading Resilience, by Rick Hanson, which gives an abundance of advice on achieving a greater degree of personal, internal resilience.

The alternative is to continue with denial, or having accepted the reality of the situation, give up and abandon any attempt to adapt. To do so is a great pity, since the situation is potentially survivable. Not to minimize the rigors of collapse, especially of the kind of dieoff we will eventually be facing, but there is good reason to think that some of us will survive, find a livelihood and maintain a sense of self worth even with drastically reduced consumption of energy and material goods.

In order to be among those who survive, resilience also involves having accumulated some physical and social resources which will tide us through when the system that currently supports us falls apart, allowing us to hang in there long enough so that we have a chance to adapt. These are the things we will decide we do really need to keep in order to meet our basic needs—safety, satisfaction and connection. Our ancestors did this for millions of years without the help of industrial civilization, so I think there is some chance we can do so as well.

Next comes "Relinquishment". This means deciding what we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse. Clearly, many aspects of modern industrial society cannot be sustained and will have to be abandoned.

Lastly comes "Restoration". This means deciding what can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies. In building our modern world there is much that we have set aside, old things that can brought back and put to good use in our low energy future.

I could spend one or more posts looking at the details of these three Rs, and it is likely that I will. I think there are many different approaches that should be tried, and of those, quite a few that will be successful to some degree. The main thing is that people actually give it a try.

So, we started out to have a closer look at the details of collapse in order to gain a better perspective on strategies for living through collapse and after it. I think an understanding of surplus energy's role in economics and the three Rs outlined above is a good start. But to delve deeper into this, I think we need to take a look at mankind's disturbing tendency to group together in ever large settlements. We tend to focus on the advantages of living in cities and to ignore what it takes to make a city work, how it can stop and what might happen when it does.

Cities rely on long supply lines and extensive infrastructure to supply their inhabitants. Our failure to maintain that infrastructure and its resulting decay is already leading to intermittent outages of services for which there is no local alternative. At some point the line between outage and catastrophe blurs and not long after that it becomes unavoidably clear that collapse is really happening.

Now I am a country boy, so perhaps I am biased, but it is my contention that cities are going to be very hard hit by collapse, even the sort of slow collapse that I am talking about. I think that escaping to a more rural area before collapse progresses much further would be a good idea.

The key question, though, is why do I think things will be any better in rural areas?

There is no doubt in my mind that the crises related to supplies of energy, water and food (the basic necessities), which will no doubt occur as industrial civilization crumbles, will effect rural areas just as much as urban ones. People in rural areas are just as much a part of "Business As Usual" as people in the city, just as dependent on long supply chains and complex systems. And when there are disasters, relief efforts are likely to be focused on large population centres, ignoring the rural areas just on the basis of what will help the most people with the least effort.

But we are already seeing the US federal government tapering back on relief efforts in response to hurricanes and passing the responsibility off to the private sector. There is little reason to believe they will do any better. And not far down the road local communities, be they urban or rural, will find themselves essentially on their own when the going gets tough.

The good news is that there are many rural areas where:

  • adequate energy can be had locally in the form of firewood which can be cut by hand
  • potable water can be accessed from already existing wells that can be converted to hand or wind driven pumps and surface water that can be used with fairly simple filtration or treatment
  • sufficient food for the local population can be grown on existing farmland within walking distance of town, without fossil fuel powered machinery

Sure, it will require some degree of advance preparation and a willingness to adapt our lifestyles, but it is all quite doable. This is not the case in the city, where local resources for self-sufficient living are simply not available.

When I speak of rural areas, let me make it clear that I am talking about small towns of a few hundred to a few thousand people, surrounded by farmland, not isolated farmsteads. It will take more than a single family or two to make this work. Indeed isolation is one of the most debilitating conditions that you can find yourself in as a human being.

During the last few decades neoliberalism, in its endless search for profit, has done its best to monetize every human relationship and to isolate individuals from each other. The declining economy is leading to increased under employment and unemployment, poverty and homelessness all of which stresses our communities and isolates their individual members. And civil unrest is growing as inequality between the upper and lower classes increases and the degree to which the lower classes are being abandoned becomes more obvious.

But many small towns are a long way behind cities on that curve and their communities are still intact enough that co-operation is possible when it becomes clear what is required. And during a slow collapse it will gradually become more clear what the situation really is. To enough people, at least, that those advance preparations will get made. Collapse aware people have an important role to play there.

For a long time now, young people have been moving from areas like the one where I live to the cities in order to get an education and find work. The day will come (as I understand it already has as conditions have worsened in Greece) when the situation in the cities will be so bad, they will start to come home to take advantage of the somewhat better situation in the country. They will be able to pitch in and help their families adapt to collapse.

So far I have been talking about adapting during a slow and steady collapse. But of course catastrophic events can by no means be ruled out. In particular, our financial systems are largely virtual and as such are subject to extremely fast collapse when they fail. They will be the first to go, and that will have a negative effect on everything else.

It appears to me that most real economic growth ended in the 1990s and since then growth has largely taken the form of financial bubbles, fueled by debt instead of energy. Those who have money are desperate to find somewhere to invest it at a good return, but profitable, growing businesses are becoming rare, so instead they invest in ever more speculative endeavours. That's fine as long as the price is going up, but every such bubble is looking for a pin to burst it. A few months ago I said that we can expect a financial crash of greater magnitude than 1929 or 2008, sometime in the next few years and nothing has happened since then to change my opinion.

Already we have had a minor spike in the price of oil, trouble for the currencies of emerging market countries, and some indication that the long running bull market may be coming to an end. We are in the middle of this and it isn't yet clear if this is the start of a recession, or if the economy will rally and put off the big crash for some months or years yet.

When that crash does happen, I think that even in cities most of the population will survive the initial days of a financial collapse, mainly because of heroic efforts on the part of individuals in shop floor and low level management positions in supply chain and infrastructure organizations. The people at the tops of those organizations will be largely paralyzed, or at worst doing exactly the wrong thing. But even a worldwide financial collapse will hit some areas harder than others and will proceed, as I have said before, unevenly, unsteadily and unequally. And that's a good thing, because it means when things get really bad locally, there may well be someplace to go where things are better.

I expect there will be some reduction in our population due to supply chain failures following financial crashes. But the big dieoff that lies ahead of us will happen when industrial scale agriculture (both conventional and organic) comes hard up against resource limits—mainly fossil fuels and mineral fertilizers.

Still, it is possible that in the wake of a financial crash the stereotype of a city full of people starving in the dark with no help in sight will occur occasionally. For the vast majority of the unprepared people in that city this will not a survivable scenario. For anyone who really has no other choice but to stay in the city for now, it might be best to have a few weeks of food, water, etc. on hand and plan to stay at home during such a situation, keeping a very low profile, until things settle down and only then head for the country.

But you and I, of course, will have long since moved to a small town at a safe distance from the city. The standard trope in discussions of collapse involves our little town being overrun with roving hordes of hungry people engaged in looting and other forms of violence. I think this is unlikely. The key is to be farther away from the city than most of its population can walk on empty stomachs, which is not that great a distance. Thirst and starvation are debilitating and most people will not think to head out until they are quite desperate.

A few people will no doubt make it through though. It is my opinion that it would be better for everyone involved to welcome them with food and medical assistance, rather than fight them off with guns. It will be a bit of a trick to be set up to do that and in my next post I will look at the practicalities of moving to a small town in the country and getting ready to cope as the pace of collapse increases.

 

Machinery for a Post Collapse World: Charcoal Tractor

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on October 17, 2018

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Welcome to my kick off post. I find it the height of arrogance to blog as I claim no mastery in the subjects that interest me most. I’m a greenie, a builder, a single dad, an alternative energy enthusiast, a gardener, and deeply concerned about the sustainability of the world we have created. I probably won’t write all that often but look in from time to time as I muddle my way through building a better life. For today the topic will be My charcoal powered tractor.

Years ago I launched a search for a fossil fuel free way to charge my batteries in my off grid home. The amount of useable sun in the winter on my solar array would drop to 1.5 hours from a summer high of 5. Most off grid homes resort to propane generators to make up the difference. Propane was not cheap and like any good doomer I understood how precious it was. Steam, thermo electrics, stirling engines, Hydrogen brown gas, you name it I researched and tinkered. The search for an alternative led me to Gasification, specifically charcoal gasification, as a possible locally appropriate solution. Hidden in history I discovered hundred of thousands tractors, buses and cars ran on the stuff during the second world war. Some were jury rigged but there was also also factory made kits, standardization of fuel, Fuelling stations, government pamphlets, standards of construction, government regulations and guidelines, it was all there and vanished as soon as gasoline became available again. Don’t buy it? Just another conspiracy theory?  here is a great photo montage done by another woodgas nut like me. What strikes me here is just how normal this fuel was:

Imagine my surprise that a fuel that could run all my machinery with minor modification could be made at home while I heated my house…

This article is too short to go into the ins and outs of gasification, charcoal versus wood and how it works so take a look here for a primer on the subject:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wood_gas

If you want a glimpse into the modern masters of the technology check here:

www.driveonwood.com

As often happens in life priorities change. For me it was kids, a busier work schedule and correspondingly higher electrical usage which had me choose to grid connect my home to replace the generator. For a while projects around resilience took a back seat to all that make families work. It was always there though. I’ve decided to revisit these themes over the next few years as I attempt to refocus my life towards greatly increased food production, renewed energy independence, and fossil fuel replacements. Right now food comes first.

Fossil fuels have come to be critical to food production. I won’t debate the effectiveness of permaculture, lasagna garden bed making, french intensive methods, organic farming, or the joys of draft animals here. I can tell you that in times of crisis we will need millions of new large gardens seemingly overnight and one thing all those above methods are not is fast. Tractors are able to convert a manicured lawn into a plowed field in a matter of hours. With all that in mind my contribution is my 1953 Ferguson TEA20 tractor converted to run on charcoal. It was cheap and available but appropriately its from an era of simpler machines designed to run forever and be repaired by an owner in the field with minimal tools. On a sunny october afternoon it turned my weed filled 2250 sq ft garden back into the food plot it had once been. One hour of charcoal powered cultivation replaced what would have been 3 days of back breaking work for one person. Total fuel consumed 10 gallons of charcoal ,just shy of 14 Lbs., roughly equivalent to 1 US gallon of gasoline. I make my charcoal in my wood stove over the winter. This would have represented the coals from 24 hours of mid winter fires but honestly it probably took me 2 evenings of shovelling coals to accumulate this much as I’m not a fanatic or desperate. This is not a solution for a thriving society basking in economic prosperity and cheap energy. It works best if you have access to wood and are used to processing it so probably rural dwellers, who are land rich but money poor and heat with wood. It will not power an economy of commuting suburbanites but it might be enough for my northern tree covered slice of the world.

I’ve committed to plowing up 2 garden plots for friends this fall if time allows. I will be running on charcoal and will record the process. For now just some stills and some background videos will have to do. As a teaser that same 14 lbs of charcoal would have produced between 6 and 8 kW Hr of electricity for battery charging… That is another post though.

Cheers,

It all starts with making charcoal:

A walk around in the tractor’s early days:

All nice and shiny running on charcoal gas at an agricultural fair. It’s never been that clean since!

The Geopolitics of Petroleum

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Published on The Doomstead Diner on October 12, 2018

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This was a presentation to the members of ReNew/ATA (renewable energy advocates) at the Peace Centre in Brisbane in late September. Even though it is almost 90 minutes long, it is just a basic introduction. It is a much abridged version of topics already covered in articles previously written (see weblinks in text description beneath video)

Link to full talk:

https://youtu.be/K9wCbNHlMsU

 

 

 

New York City Has Become So Progressive it Plans to Bite the Hand that Feeds it – the Oil Companies

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on January 26th, 2018

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Lady Libertine (with no apologies to Emma Lazarus): "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled energy slaves yearning to exhale CO2 virtually for free, The wretched black gold of your teeming bowels. Send these, the unburned, tempest-tost to me, I fill my lamp beside the charlatan's door" (photos by David Saddler and Robert Byron)
Lady Libertine (with no apologies to Emma Lazarus): "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled energy slaves yearning to exhale CO2 virtually for free, The wretched black gold of your teeming bowels. Send these, the unburned, tempest-tost to me, I fill my lamp beside the charlatan's door" (photos by David Saddler and Robert Byron)

Who would've guessed it? New York City, the harmonious hometown of the chief litigator himself, Donald Trump, is planning to sue. By no means any more courteous or humble than its prodigal son, following divestiture of the $5bn in fossil fuel investments its $189bn pension fund holds, New York City plans to use what are possibly the only ridiculously deep-enough pockets in the entire world capable of ridiculously deepening themselves even further by actually suing five of the largest oil companies. That is, the very oil companies that over the years have enabled New York City to be so jacked up that it's earned the moniker of "the city that never sleeps".

A bit too harsh am I? Perhaps I've failed to realize how concerned New York City is with not simply climate change but also the effects it will have on the plight of others? Let's see about that.

What's first required here is a look at the justification for why New York City believes it deserves "billions of dollars in damages" from the five investor-owned fossil fuel companies it intends to sue: Exxon, BP, ConocoPhillips, Shell, and Chevron. As New York City mayor Bill de Blasio described it in a piece he wrote for The Washington Post,

For decades, Big Oil ravaged our environment. They knew what they were peddling was lethal, but they didn't care. They used the classical [sic?] Big Tobacco playbook of denial, denial, denial, and all the while they did everything to hook society on their lethal product.

From this we get rationale #1 with which New York City is basing its case on, that being the act of equating fossil fuel companies with tobacco pushers. To do so requires a serious stretch of the imagination though, considering that although Big Oil (Exxon, to be exact) came to know about climate change in 1977 and then proceeded to promote climate misinformation, prior to 1977 Big Oil in general would have been your run-of-the-mill profit-driven capitalist enterprise that for at least half a century earlier had done nothing out of the ordinary to get New York City "hooked" on its "lethal product". It of course didn't actually need to, because for the most part New York City voluntarily and giddily did that on its own.

Furthermore, it's a bit rich to compare tobacco to fossil fuels when tobacco is but a frivolous stimulant while fossil fuels are the "life force" that makes industrial monstrosities like New York City "go". Take away a smoker's pack and you may have one seriously irritable, ticked-off, but nonetheless mostly-functionable person. Cut off fossil fuel supplies to New York City and you'll have guns being pulled out at supply-hampered gas stations, grocery store shelves empty in two or three days, inoperable water and sewage systems within two weeks, and yes, even shortages of cigarettes. Shortages of the latter would of course be the least of New York City's problems though, because without fossil fuels New York City would quickly break out into utter pandemonium and would probably wish it had of been nuked to smithereens instead.

Secondly, and although we can put aside the fact that Svante Arrhenius' was (rather obscurely) writing about CO2's contributions towards a greenhouse effect back in 1896, de Blasio's statement that "For decades, Big Oil… knew" is almost as egregious as his comparison to tobacco pushers, seeing how the first cover-to-cover book focusing specifically on climate change appeared back in 1989 (environmentalist Bill McKibben's The End of Nature: Humanity, Climate Change and the Natural World), a book that was undoubtedly sold in fine New York City bookstores.

Any occasion is a good occasion for a parade in New York City! And will you take a look at those colourful balloons full of hot air – adorbale! (photo by United Nations Photo)

Why, may I ask, did it then take 25 years – decades – before New York City decided to take things so seriously that it finally held its first climate change parade, and then four years after that finally decided to sue Big Oil? Might that be because it had to wait before the science had definitively come in, and/or because it was forced to bide its time while climate change's foot soldiers raised enough consciousness? Maybe. But maybe, just maybe, it was also because New York City finally saw its opportunity to undertake what might very well come to be known as the greatest swindle of the (industrial) civilisation. For as Don de Blasio also stated in The Washington Post,

Today, we are saying, "No more." The time is long past due for Big Oil to pay the bill and take full responsibility for the devastation they have wrought. That by itself will be a major step forward, but it isn't enough. We know we have more to do. We are going to stop investing in the fuel of yesterday, so we can have a better tomorrow.

With New York City being one of the largest consumers in the world of fossil fuels per sq/km, what de Blasio's rationale is showing is that New York City has a complete unwillingness to own up to its role in fossil fuel usage as well as a complete lack of contrition. Fully ensconced within the bargaining stage of the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief, what New York City's Don is telling us is not only that it's up to Big Oil to take complete responsibility for all the fossil fuels New York City has burned over the past century (which it used to build up and then maintain its profligate lifestyle), but that New York City bears absolutely no responsibility for eagerly suckling upon the hind front teat of Big Oil, a front teat that from my vantage point looks like it might not actually be much of a teat.

Rationale #2 that New York City intends to draw upon in order to secure its bargain is based upon the recent notion that "renewable" energy can replace fossil fuels, the implication being that at some point in the future New York City (and the rest of industrial civilisation) as we know it can not only be sustained, but righteously sustained. Taking this premise one step further, New York City intends to reap billions of dollars by trying to convince US federal courts that instead of using Big Oil's "fuels of yesterday" yesterday it could have been using what we might as well call Big Renewable's "fuels of tomorrow". Yesterday. Or as de Blasio might as well have put it, "We would have been using clean renewables for the past century, but Big Oil tricked us into using dirty fossil fuels. Shame!"

Whether or not New York City can actually pull off this swindle doesn't interest me in the slightest, while what does interest me is yet another example of New York City's outright skulduggery. Because while Don de Blasio also railed against "an economic system that is harmful to our people" in his Washington Post piece, he had absolutely nothing to say about the Ponzionomic, fractional-reserve banking system that New York City's Wall Street is currently the locus for, and which by being the greatest wealth pump the world has ever seen allows New York City to enjoy a "free ride" on the back(s) of the rest of the world.

I'll once again admit that I'm possibly being a bit too unaccommodating here, and that what I really should be doing is being a bit more patient before New York City and its Don redeem themselves by undertaking the much more than symbolic gesture (and the much more than baby-step divestiture) of kicking Big Oil off the New York Stock Exchange.

How does that saying go again? "When something-something fly"?

No, New York City's finest probably shouldn't try to fly (photo courtesy of Jeff Kyle)

Opportunistic politicians aren't the only skulduggerists getting in on this action though, next in line being the eminent economist Jeffrey Sachs who proclaimed that

There are alternatives to runaway climate change. North America has vast reserves of wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and other zero-carbon energy to power the United States, Canada, and Mexico. New York can go green and electric by midcentury through electric vehicles, electricity-powered public transit, and electric heat pumps for buildings, powered by electricity from wind, solar and hydroelectric power.

Never mind that the notion of wind as a "reserve" is about as ingenious and riveting as passing wind, but as I've pointed out earlier the notion that we can power industrial civilisation as we know it on "renewables" is based upon similar kinds of lies and deceptions that fossil fuel companies and their acolytes have used, and continue to use, in order to promote their fuel of choice. Nonetheless, Sachs also stated – and you're going to have to brace yourself for this one – that

New York hosts Wall Street, the UN and the US media, [and] it will now be the centre of climate action too.

Which, I'll admit, kind of leaves me at a loss for words. Do we all just shoot ourselves now?

If you somehow managed to stick with us, and to round out the triad of skulduggerists, the Third Amigo – the aforementioned environmentalist Bill McKibben – stated in his article "New York City Just Declared War on the Oil Industry", that

New York, for one, isn’t taking it any more.

New York isn't taking it anymore? Riiiiiight.

"I'm mad as hell and I'm – wait, what did you just say? You want to pay me how much? Umm… yeah, okay, on second thought I think I can take it a bit more. This much more!"

Although I have to give McKibben credit for his 2003 book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (which as far as I remember was rather excellent), I also can't help but think that McKibben probably should have called it enough after Enough, what with he being one of the most abhorrent examples of what passes off as an environmentalist, which in this case is someone who uses their stature to give legitimacy to obscenities like fossil-fuel-gorging New York City and thus – amongst much else – the very underpinnings of our environmental and climate change crises. To give just one example, McKibben also stated that

New York and most of the world's other great cities aren't viable if the sea keeps rising: they will be destroyed.

Which, if I'm not mistaken, should probably make one think about what exactly we're trying to preserve here: wilderness? Farmland? The "environment"? Humanity's place in it all? Or could it maybe be "great cities"? Because while I of course don't know about you, and although I'm vastly over-simplifying things here, I'm kind of the impression that rather than "New York and most of the world's other great cities [not being] viable if the sea keeps rising", it might actually be that "the seas will most certainly keep rising so long as we have New Yorks and other great cities". Don't try voicing "cynicisms" as such to McKibben though, what with he being of the reductive opinion that

Smart money has been pouring into renewables; dumb money has stuck with fossil fuel[s].

Bill McKibben and Amy Goodman (of Democracy Now!) at New York City's 2014 People's Climate Parade: "Okay, climate change. But do you also have any thoughts on the collapse of industrial civilisation and what it might imply for how we should approach the dilemma of climate change?"; "I wouldn't touch the topic with a 10-foot wind mill"; "Touché!" (photo courtesy of Eino Sierpe)

Because what we're actually dealing with here is by no means smart money vs. dumb money but rather dumb money vs. even dumber money, an equation of which you'll have to forgive me for not being sure if the common denominator is "dumbness" or "money". I'll leave you to try and figure out that one for yourself though, with perhaps a bit of assistance coming to you via our environmentalist Amigo's I-want-to-sound-even-more-ridiculous-than-the-economist-Amigo statement that

New York is different, and that's why its decision signals the start of a real rout. For one thing, of course, it's the center of world finance… [and] its money managers have a well-deserved reputation for excellence.

I tell you, I'm barely dodging these bullets here.

Anyhow, with it now cleared up for us that what the Three Amigos and all their amigoettes are concerned about isn't so much the general effects that climate change will have on us and the planet as a whole, but rather on how it will effect "great cities" and world finance, what the rest of us might find worthy of our time is to ponder over what New York City is going to try and do when it realizes that there's nobody and nothing that it can sue for the collapse of industrial civilisation. (Except God. Perhaps New York City has in fact built up high enough that it can in fact manage to sue God.)

"Roger that. Coincidentally enough we did in fact just learn how to fly, so if the commander in chief is sure we've got the bigger button then we're ready to unload on the Almighty. Awaiting your order" (photo by Iván Lara)

Because while de Blasio also stated that climate change is "perhaps the toughest challenge New York City will face in the coming decades" (I'm presuming one of the unspoken alternatives on the menu is New York City getting nuked to smithereens, something which even former president Barack Obama regarded as a possibility to be concerned about), one "non-perhaps" is that the collapse of industrial civilisation will make New York City increasingly nonviable, and with its influx of tributes perpetually dwindling it might be a good idea to think about what kind of austerity measures New York City will try and impose on the rest of the world in order to try and preserve its "greatness".

Oh yeah, and about that "greatness".

While de Blasio stated that it's his determination to "build a city that is more resilient in the face of rising waters and more powerful storms", what we find here is not only New York City's "great" synonym for resilience – opportunism – but also the delusional idea that New York City as we know it can ever come even close to what the pre-Madison Avenue word-bastardization of "resilience" actually is. Because to grasp the reality behind what New York City tries to pass off as resilience one need look no further than the idiotically described "bomb cyclone" that recently hit it, a storm that not only utterly crippled JFK International Airport and saw thousands of flights cancelled, but after a water main broke in its fourth terminal also saw the luggage of stranded passengers get deluged in a flood of water.

As tellingly described by Slate,

[I]t’s not surprising that the disruption was severe… [A]n airport like JFK… is a finely tuned and highly sensitive operation… There is no slack; its very efficiency makes it vulnerable to disruptions that are both predictable and, given the way the industry chooses to operate, unpreventable… Under pressure to run smoothly, the system overpromised its ability to do so at every turn, transforming one very snowy day into a chain of failures that would ensnare some travelers for an entire week.

Efficiency and a lack of slack are however the diametrical opposite of what "resilience" actually means. With New York City and its various facets similarly having virtually no resilience to speak of, and with it similarly having no more humility that its prodigal son cum commander in chief, it can only be expected that – supposing it doesn't get nuked first – when supplies of the "lethal product" it giddily "hooked" itself on start to dry up that it'll act little differently than a strung out junkie out to pilfer anything not tightly secured to the ground and/or locked away.

Count yourself warned.

In the meantime, and as Don de Blasio began to close off his Washington Post piece,

We know we're going to face opposition. We know powerful interests and cynical people will push back and hard. But we also know New York City has a special responsibility. We are a beacon to the world. People watch us. We didn't choose this battle, but we accept it willingly. We have to get it right and show what can be done.

I'm not sure if by "powerful interests" de Blasio was referring to the Almighty, but nonetheless, yes, New York City truly is a beacon to the world, a beacon of how much a parasite us humans can be on our fellow man.

Show us how one steals from the rich and gives to the rich New York City!

Yes, there's a second person in that photo (photo by Xu Kin)

No, Not NEOM Nor Even Women Can Save Saudi Arabia and its Monarchy from Peak Oil and Collapse [part 1/2]

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on December 8th, 2017

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You know things have taken a turn for the desperate when women have started to drive. Or rather, when they're about to start driving in Saudi Arabia.

Although repeated efforts over the years to allow Saudi Arabian Miss Daisies to drive themselves haven't managed to budge things in the slightest, it's nonetheless a bit ironic that the sole country in the world that doesn't allow women to drive automobiles is also the country sitting on the greatest amount of (easily accessible) reserves of the stuff that makes those vehicles go vroom. Strangely enough though it's not as if women are completely repressed in the kingdom built upon sand, what with women allowed to become lawyers, doctors, engineers… and jet airplane pilots. That all being so, it's hard to imagine any other reason for why women shouldn't be allowed to drive wingless vehicles (in a time and place where they're nearly impossible to function without) than to provide a leash upon women's necks for the all-male monarchy, clerics and their acolytes.

Surprisingly enough though the "inconvenient" restriction from Happy Motoring beset upon women is soon to be lifted, what with a royal decree read live on TV in September stating that come June 2018 Saudi Arabia will be ushered into the 20th century via women's permission to join men and cows in the quest to equally belch our way towards an overheated climate. Fantastic this surely is for our soon-to-be Saudi Arabian sisters in bovinity, but is this fine example of equality inherently an occasion for celebration?

Yeah, maybe not.

"Strong enough for a man but made for a woman" (photo courtesy of The Internet)

While the expected crowd of cornucopian-minded activists – that fail to realize that the world doesn't revolve around the West but rather around energy – have denounced the decree as "cosmetic reforms" and "little more than a public relations stunt designed to cement this notion of the Saudi regime as the liberator of women", nothing could actually be further from the truth. Because in reality there's one reason and one reason only why the Saudi Arabian monarchy has decided to "mend its ways", that being nothing more than the fact that it's expensive to not let women drive.

Since women who are restricted from driving automobiles can't just wait around on their husbands/fathers/brothers/sons to drive them to and from work or to do a simple errand, the citizens subjects of Saudi Arabia are forced to employ nearly a million and a half foreign workers (60% of the kingdom's domestic workforce) to work as chauffers in order to drive around Miss Saudi Arabian Daisy.

With those million and a half or so chauffers requiring individual families to fork over $500 of their own money per month as well as food and accommodation, the cumulative $10bn or so in remittances (most of which are sent to the Philippines, where most chauffers hail from) are a huge drain on not only Saudi Arabian families but the Saudi Arabian economy as well.

Until recently this detriment to Saudi Arabia's coffers hadn't been much of a problem for the rulers of the oil-rich kingdom themselves, but thanks to the 2015 crash in oil prices black gold hasn't been bringing in anywhere near the amount of foreign currency as it used to, leaving Saudi Arabia in the mind-boggingly absurd position of tumbling towards bankruptcy (which according to a 2015 estimate by the International Monetary Fund would occur by 2020 if the situation didn't change).

With the price of oil having crashed from $114 in 2014 to a paltry $28 in 2016, the difference in price not only contributed to a loss of $390bn in anticipated profits for Saudi Arabia in 2015, but thanks to a 13% reduction in its GDP – and even though it burned through $115bn in foreign assets in order to minimize the damage – it still ended up with a deficit of $136bn in 2015 and then another deficit of $107bn in 2016. Even the "magic" of economists couldn't do much with the latter figure, only able to whitewash it down to a loss of $79bn when delayed payments and IOUs to contractors were excluded. Those exclusions would include such things as the 50,000 workers that the Binladin Construction Group terminated without having received their back-pay, and who upon having exit visas foisted upon them (necessary to leave the country thanks to the slave-like kafala system) decided to stick around and torch a fleet of company buses instead.

Just another day in paradise (photo of non-Binladin bus courtesy of Ulises Vizcardo)

With oil windfalls accounting for 90% of the treasury's revenue (it pumps one in nine barrels consumed worldwide everyday), Saudi Arabia's foreign assets not only proceeded to haemorrhage hundreds of billions of dollars from a high of $737bn in 2014 (for a while $6.5bn were being lost each month), but the kingdom's fragility was then made strikingly evident by the fact that for the first time since 1991 it was astoundingly forced to turn to the world of private finance in order to raise a 5-year $10bn loan from a consortium of global banks in order to finance its deficit.

How is it possible, you might ask, that a country with not just a bounteous supply of crude but a bounteous supply of sweet crude – that costs only $10 per barrel to extract – can be on the verge of insolvency? That would be partly due to the fact that Saudi Arabia isn't so much a country as much as it's a kingdom, a kingdom which in turn doesn't so much have a government as much as it has an absolute monarchy (or rather a theocratic dictatorship) which has to contend with the high upkeep costs of the society it's built.

Founded by king Abdulaziz Al Saud in 1932 (which is where the name Saudi Arabia is derived from), the discovery of oil some 80 years ago has allowed for a procession of kings (all sons of Al Saud) to take on the role of what is essentially CEO of the family business, a family business that happens to be an absolute monarchy, or better yet a petrocratic dictatorship. With countless scions of the royal clan expecting/requiring massive handouts (one of them is rumoured to have purchased the only privately held Leonardo da Vinci last month for $450.3mn), a population that pays no income tax, gasoline priced at a little higher than zero dollars per litre (which it has to import since it's a net gasoline importer), and so forth, prior to the recent crash of oil's price Saudi Arabia required a per barrel price of about $94.80 to break even due to its need to convert oil proceeds into payoffs to buy political loyalty, the quiescence of conservative clerics and the merchant class, as well as the subservience of its subjects.

To put it a bit crudely (no pun intended), what the aforementioned implies is that Saudi Arabia and its monarchy are screwed. Because if Ron Patterson's recent conveyance over at Peak Oil Barrel that "Saudi production peaked in 2016 at 10,338 kbpd and their average production for 2017 is down 443 kbpd so far" is an indication that Saudi Arabia has already reached its all-time peak, then that means that Saudi Arabia's prospects aren't about to get better anytime soon. Or rather, ever.

(image courtesy of Ron Patterson / Peak Oil Barrel)

Don't try and tell that to the Saudi Arabian monarchy though, what with it apparently not being too concerned with its peaking supplies of oil so much as it's leaning towards the much more palatable notion of "peak oil demand", a wishy-washy theory that has been recently espoused by the smartest men in the room over at The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Financial Times, and Bloomberg. Without delving into the notion of peak oil demand (I'll save that for another time), what the Saudi Arabian monarchy is effectively worried about isn't so much its supplies of oil peaking (and then decreasing), but rather the fabled renewable energy utopia where everybody's car is essentially powered by a strap-on of which causes demand for Saudi Arabia's oil to drop to nil.

Put a bit differently, the Saudi Arabian monarchy is worried that technology is going to make its crude energy supplies obsolete. And if you think I'm exaggerating, think again.

Courtesy of a glitzy conference held in Riyadh in late-October, it was announced by the kingdom's Crown Prince that plans were afoot to create a $500bn megacity called NEOM that – you guessed it – will be entirely powered by wind and solar energy and so will provide a "new blueprint for sustainable life". Eschewing the need for pyromaniac Filipinos and the like, NEOM will not only boast more robots than people (in a coinciding event a "female" android named Sophia was the first android in the world to be granted citizenship – in the country that has been unable to grant basic rights to women no less), but according to the Crown Prince "Everything will have a link with artificial intelligence, with the Internet of Things – everything."

Spanning an area encompassing 26,500 km and crossing into Egypt and Jordan, NEOM is "the future of Saudi Arabia", one in which will be found "digital air" for all (free Wi-Fi), driverless vehicles, a population fed by solar-panel-powered vertical farms growing hydroponic food, and so on and so forth.

With NEOM being independent of the kingdom's "existing governmental framework", and featuring cutting-edge technological innovation, environmental sustainability, and gender equality (a promotional video apparently showed women jogging while wearing croptops, although as I don't watch video I can't confirm whether or not cleavage was allowed as well), NEOM promises to be almost completely at odds with the values and image currently portrayed by the ultraconservative kingdom. As the Crown Prince elucidated himself,

We can do 98 percent of the standards applied in similar cities, but there is 2 percent we can't do, like, for example, alcohol. A foreigner, if they desire alcohol, can either go to Egypt or Jordan.

So although foreigners will have to venture elsewhere if they desire alcohol (and possibly cleavage), "Neom's duty is to be a world hub for everyone in the whole world" as the Crown Prince also explained.


Whether or not you think this phantasmagorical Jetsons-on-steroids-Bitcoin vision is even possible, there's still the issue of how the Saudi Arabian monarchy expects to be able to pay for it all, what with its forecasted 2017 break-even point of $74 dollars per barrel meaning it's still about $20 off the mark and so still going broke. Although I'll touch on this a lot more in part 2, this is, in part, where the Saudi Arabian monarchy expects its Wonder Women in shining armour to come to its rescue.

On top of the aforementioned $10bn hit that Saudi Arabian families must collectively take in order to employ foreign chauffers, there's also the fact that many women (who make up the majority of the kingdom's university graduates) find that after deducting the chauffer fees from their salaries there's pretty much no monetary point in working. And since the Saudi Arabian monarchy needs to quash those $10bn in remittances, and since it especially needs an increase in women's participation in the workforce so that it can boost its GDP (Norwegian housewives that moved into the workforce nearly doubled the tax base and are said to have contributed "more to Norwegian prosperity than the coincidental discovery of North Atlantic oil reserves"), the monarchy obviously felt it had no choice but to modernise itself by aiming to increase women's participation in the workforce from 22% to 30% by 2030, in part by giving them access to the aforementioned strap-ons.


But as much of a genuine improvement it would be for Saudi Arabian women to no longer have to be slaves to their men and so have the opportunity to join their men as wage slaves instead, they'll nonetheless still be slaves to their men. Because while come June 2018 women will not only be able to drive in Saudi Arabia but won't even need permission from a man to get behind the wheel or procure themselves a driver's license, this is by no means the most pressing demand of Saudi Arabian women and activists in general.

Because the fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabian women still live under what is known as the guardianship system, a system in which women aren't allowed to marry, work, study, open a bank account, travel abroad, nor even get certain kinds of medical treatment without the explicit permission of their guardian, this guardian of course being a male, a male who might be their husband, father, brother – even their son. That being so, newly-minted female drivers might want to take extra precautions and stick to the slow lanes, considering that upon arrival at car accidents some ambulance personnel have been known to refuse life-saving treatment to women until the woman's guardian had arrived and provided approval, nearly leading to death.

Although dissent towards the lifting of the driving prohibition was mostly muted due to the tight leash the monarchy has on the media and prominent voices, it wasn't too long ago that support for the prohibition was rather de rigueur

Nonetheless, with ten million women over twenty years-of-age (read: potential drivers and thus GDP-contributors), the monarchy seems to figure it can make even more converts via more decrees, the latest one unveiled in late-October and which is to provide women with equal access to bread and circuses (women are slowly being given permission to enter sports stadiums).

However. It wasn't a week after this latest decree that another first was achieved in the kingdom, this one being the first time in Saudi Arabia's history that the heart of Riyadh was attacked, courtesy of a group of Yemeni rebels who launched a ballistic missile towards the capital's airport.

Fortunately enough the missile was intercepted over north-east Riyadh thanks to the Patriot missile defence system that came courtesy of the decade-old deal between Saudi Arabia and the United States, the President of the United States not being able to contain his effusive glee by pointing out that

We make the best military equipment in the world… You saw the missile that went out? And our system knocked the missile out of the air. That's how good we are. Nobody makes what we make…

Perhaps. Because as a senior Yemeni air force official told CNN,

This is not the end. Saudi cities will be a continuous target. We are entering a new phase.

With this in mind, and to give the monarchy a bit of credit, could it be possible that the monarchy realizes that maybe, just maybe, those missile defence systems aren't going to be able to hold out forever, and that perhaps it might be a good idea to hedge its bets by, I don't know, testing the waters to see if it can cash out while it still can? Could it be that some factions within the monarchy have seen the writing on the wall and so have decided to make a deal?

I'll touch on that a bit more in this post's follow-up. In the meantime, and since there isn't a thing besides peeing while standing up that a man can do and that a woman shouldn't be allowed to do, let's all rejoice in the new-found privileges soon to be bestowed upon Saudi Arabian women and so stand back – way back – in awe as the next volleys of fireworks begin their ascent across the skies of Riyadh.

President Donald Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz, quite possibly paying their final respects to the Age of Oil and the Age of Saudi Arabia (photo by The White House)

Collapse Step by Step, Part 4: Political Positions

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool August 6, 2017

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Adapting to energy decline and economic contraction.

 
Kincardine Yacht Club, Returning from Wednesday Night Race

In my last post I talked about some ways of expressing the nuances of political positions. I started out with the basic left-right spectrum and then moved on to the "Political Compass" , which gives us a two dimensional map of our position, using the left—right axis and the libertarian—authoritarian axis. But without too much sweat I was able to come up with four more axes that, along with those two, define what I think are the most important aspects of a political position.

There are probably more, but in this post I'd like to focus on how a government's position on each of those six axes might determine how successful it is likely to be in adapting to the challenges that face us during the next few decades. Challenges that it seems very likely will lead to the collapse of industrial civilization.

Acknowledge Limits <—> Deny Limits

We are already nicely into a crisis caused by the end of economic growth and the start of economic contraction. If you accept the idea that there are limits to growth, this is not surprising and can be attributed to a reduced amount of surplus energy due to the dwindling supply of high quality, easy to access (high EROEI) fossil fuels. The obvious solution is to prepare for and adapt to a significant decline in energy usage. Yes, we will adopt alternative sources of energy, but they are not capable of supplying us with the copious amounts of surplus energy that we became accustomed to in the twentieth century

Accepting the natural limits built into our finite planet also means accepting that we are using up the sinks that have been absorbing the pollution our civilization creates. In particular, that the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing the climate to change, and in the process making most of our other problems that much worse. Solving this problem will necessitate abandoning the use of fossil fuels, and with that a significant decline in energy usage.

If you are in denial about the limits to growth, then the current situation is probably quite puzzling and you will be casting about, looking for something (or someone) to blame things on and a way to get "business as usual" back on track. That's not going to work, but unfortunately it is likely to be the standard mode of operation for most governments in the immediate future.

In the long run, one would hope that intimate experience with limits will lead most of us to acknowledge them. But I suspect that, even then, there will still be a few enclaves hanging on where people can delude themselves that they are living the dream of progress, blissfully unfettered by any sort of limit.

Socially Inclusive <—> Socially Exclusive

At one end of this axis we have societies who feel a responsibility for the welfare of all their citizens, and to some extent all mankind and all of the other living things on this planet. They do what they can to provide for the poor as well as the rich, including an effort to limit inequality. It also includes a welcoming attitude to immigrants and refugees, and making an effort to be kind to the environment.

When the economy is contracting, the attempt is made to spread the pain around more or less evenly. There is no doubt in my mind that societies like this will do a much better job of coping with the declining circumstances in the years to come than those at the other end of this scale. There is much room for economic contraction in the lifestyles common in the developed nations, room for a lot of decline before we get to the point of not having enough to get by on.

At the other end of this axis we have societies where the rich and powerful make every effort to hang onto their wealth and power no matter what happens, with little or no concern for the poor or even the lower middle class, the bottom 80% economically speaking. As the economy continues to contract and even the rich begin to feel the squeeze, governments in these societies will become more forthright about their attitude toward the lower classes.

Every attempt will be made to replace labour with automation. Policies of "exterminism" will be applied to the poor, jobless and homeless. This term comes from Peter Frase's book Four Futures, and refers to simply getting rid of (exterminating) the "impoverished, economical superfluous rabble". I think it is pretty reasonable to expect a violent backlash from the lower classes in response to such policies. No doubt an attempt will be made to direct the dissatisfaction of the lower classes away from the upper classes using scapegoating and xenophobia, focused on one or more specific groups who are visibly different. In most of the developed world today, Muslims are shaping up to be one of the main targets.

It seems to me that U.S. is positioned at the exclusive end of this scale, with northern European social democracies at the inclusive end, and countries like Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand somewhere in between.

Fiscally Liberal <—> Fiscally Conservative

One hears fiscal conservatives complaining about "tax and spend liberals", implying that increasing taxes will have a negative effect on the economy. Fiscal liberals respond that the economy always performs worse under "borrow and spend conservatives". It seems that the two ends of this political spectrum have the opposite effects from what you might think. The policies usually followed by fiscal conservatives lead to deficits, while fiscal liberals manage to reduce or eliminate deficits.

The things is that when the economy was growing, deficit financing worked well. Government spending increased growth and helped pull the economy out of occasional recessions. And money borrowed one year could be repaid the next year using a smaller slice of a bigger pie. Government spending on infrastructure and social programs benefited everyone, so it was hard to argue with borrowing money to do it. This mode of operation was adopted by many western democracies after WW II, and it worked very well until 70s when economic growth began to falter. It stopped working altogether in the mid 90s when real economic growth came to a halt and was replaced by growing debt and financial bubbles.

Balancing a budget has two aspects: spending and revenue, and progressive taxation is the key to making revenue match spending. The idea that taxation has a negative effect on economic growth is self serving for businesses and the rich, but it doesn't stand up to a close examination.

There are countries at the liberal end of this spectrum where taxes are progressive and quite high. Things seem to be working quite well there—so well that even most of the rich folks who are paying those very high taxes are content with the system.

And of course there are countries like Canada who are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, with moderately high taxes and government spending. Our budgets have even been balanced occasionally, though under Stephen Harper's Conservatives, taxes were lowered and deficits went back up. We hope our current government, under young Mr. Trudeau, will have better luck.

Sitting firmly at the conservative end of the spectrum we have the U.S. where taxes are low (and headed lower) and it is political suicide to discuss increasing them. Even poor working people seem to be against the very idea of taxation. I've asked Americans what's up with this and the best answer I've gotten, the one that comes closest to making sense, is that the American government is so corrupt that its citizens just aren't willing to trust it with their money. That may be so, but the American deficit keeps growing, despite numerous efforts to cut spending.

What can we expect to happen as the economy continues to contract? It seems to me that the U.S. deficit will grow until borrowing and printing money leads to a financial disaster that will greatly hasten the collapse of the country, hurting even those in the upper classes. More fiscally liberal countries will suffer less, managing a more graceful downward spiral.

At some point in this process, no matter how well managed, tax revenues will no longer support federal organizations like the UN, Europe, Canada or the US and decentralization will become a well established trend. It can be done the easy way, through negotiation and civilized agreements, or the hard way through secession and armed conflict. No doubt there will be some of both.

Communist <—> Capitalist

It is important to remember that this axis is about economics and not to get it confused with the types of government which are often associated communism or capitalism.

The totalitarian "communist" states of the twentieth century were actually practicing capitalism at the state level. And not very successfully. Most of those countries have since switched over to some more overt form of capitalism. At the same time, democracy has functioned best when restraining and regulating capitalism's excesses.

At the left end of this axis we have Communism. In the sense I am using here, it consists of the people in a group sharing resources and working together for their mutual benefit. The words "sharing", "work" and "benefit" give us the clue that we are talking about economics. Communism works well in small groups (up to 150 or 200 people) and was how we lived for all of our prehistory, more than two million years. And quite successfully, I might add.

At the right end of the axis we have Capitalism. It consists of a small minority of the people (the capitalists) in a group owning the resources and the rest of the people working for them to produce benefits that are enjoyed primarily by the capitalists.

The relationship between the capitalists and their workers may be outright slavery, serfdom or wage slavery. Outright slaves, who by no means have it easy, are at least provided with a minimum of food, clothing and shelter. Serfs in feudal cultures, don't have it easy either, but their lords do have certain obligations to them. Wage slaves, on the other hand, are provided only with a wage. Capitalist have no other responsibilities to them—in particular, when business is slow, capitalists are not responsible to provide jobs for all the workers who need them in order to live. And in modern capitalist societies there really isn't any other way to make a living.

This became particularly significant when we learned to convert heat energy into mechanical work and replace the muscle power of the workers with machinery. Initially, there was concern that many workers would be replaced by machinery and end up jobless. But workers were still needed to build, operate and maintain the machinery and for the last couple of centuries the economy grew fast enough to provide jobs for a growing work force and significantly increased their standard of living.

This is often pointed to as one of the great successes of capitalism, but it should actually be attributed to the increase in productivity made possible by the use of cheap, abundant fossil fuels. Indeed, capitalists did everything they could to improve their profits by reducing the amount of labour needed and the wages paid for that labour. It was only through unions and the support of left leaning democratic governments that labour made the gains it did.

Unfortunately, those days are over and with the slowing of economic growth, capitalists have been forced to try a number of strategies to maintain the viability of their businesses. And there has been a move to the right in many democratic governments which has helped with this.

Globalization, as long as shipping stays cheap, provides cheaper labour and a business environment with fewer safety and environmental regulations. Automation further reduces the number of workers required. And financialization offers a way of making profit by trading "virtual" commodities related to money, instead of real products. All this has been successful to some extent, but has worsened unemployment in the developed countries, and increased economic inequality between the working classes and the rich and powerful. This is a serious problem in consumer economies where the majority of consumers are also workers and need income to function adequately as consumers, in order to support the upper classes.

This and most of the other problems caused by capitalism occur when it is allowed to pursue short term profit (or shareholder value) to the exclusion of all else. As I said earlier, capitalism has worked best when governments have acted to restrain its excesses. Democracies have been particularly effective because with one vote per person the workers have more political power. But during the last few decades there has been a move to the right in most Western democracies and political parties, and power has slipped away from the workers and back to the capitalists.

It seems likely that this trend will continue, in an attempt to compensate for economic contraction. But it will not succeed in rescuing capitalism, which will collapse more quickly where it has the fewest restraints. Those of us with leftist leanings have always assumed that it would take action to end capitalism, but it's starting to appears that capitalism will collapse on its own, without there being anything ready to replace it.

Post collapse, with very much smaller and poorer states, and with capitalism already out of the way, and having acquired a bad reputation in the process, communities may be free to return to a more communistic approach.

Social Progressive <—> Social Conservative

The thing about this axis is that it changes over time as things that were progressive are gradually accepted and become the province of conservatives, while liberals move on to new horizons.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, in the developed world at least, social progressives won victories in gaining equal rights and freedoms for people of different races (particularly blacks in the U.S.) and different religions (particularly Jews, and at least in principle, Muslims), for women and for LGBT people. No doubt there are other similar battles to be won, but given the backlash we are seeing against the gains already made, it may not be time to move on just yet.

There are good reasons to think that society as a whole benefits when equal rights and freedoms are extended to those who have previously been excluded. That exclusion has resulted over the years in the failure to develop a great deal of human potential. Given the challenges we face currently and in the future, we simply cannot afford to do this. Excluding people for traits over which they have no control, which they did not choose, is surely unjust and it should not be necessary to explain why injustice is a bad thing.

Many people feel that as times get harder, socially conservative positions are more adaptive. I think just the opposite, but not surprisingly, that opinion is common among socially conservative kollapsniks, who see collapse as an opportunity to roll back social changes which they are not comfortable with, such as feminism, racial equality, religious freedom, and LGBT rights.

At the same time, I notice a trend for socially progressive people to hold a variety of anti-science positions. It is deeply shocking and abhorrent to me that they have bought into the wrong side of issues that are being pushed by people and companies for profit. The anti-vaccine movement lead by alternative medicine practitioners and the anti-genetic-engineering movement led by organic food producers and distributors are good examples of this, neither of which is supported in the least by the scientific consensus.

Libertarian <—> Authoritarian

It is important to be clear that this axis is about personal freedom, not economics. The libertarian movement and Libertarian political parties seem to be mainly about removing restrictions on the activities of business in order to get rich, with no concern for other people or the environment. I find that sort of activity abhorrent, and it is not the sense in which I mean libertarian at all. Anarchism might be a better term (anarchists being poor libertarians), but this term also has negative connotations for many people.

At any rate, we're talking about politics in Western democracies here, so what we are really looking at is variations in an area around the middle of this axis.

In order to make large countries like the one I live in work, the citizens must be willing to accept a social contract including the rule of law, taxation, regulation of business and the government's monopoly on violence. One receives all kinds of benefits in return, and in a representative democracy you even get to help choose the people who make up your government. This is fine unless the range of parties to choose from is so narrow that it really isn't a choice at all.

I suspect that our immediate future will no doubt see a move toward increasing authoritarianism in states that are nominally democracies. We are already seeing this in the U.S. Being a dictator may seem like a fine thing, until you are confronted with actually solving the sort of thorny problems that face many nations today. It's not as easy as it looks, and more resources are required to enforce this kind of rule than one where the citizens co-operate willingly.

I think the rise of the surveillance state is also something to be worried about. Fear is being used to manipulate public opinion so those in control can get more control. It's clearly a case of exchanging freedom for security, which always turns out to be a poor deal in the long run. The expense of watching over its citizens is something governments will be less able to afford as the economy continues to contract, but I suspect they will be eager to shoulder that expense and expand upon it.

In the long run, as a lack of surplus energy makes large states impractical, we may see a move in the other direction, to less authoritarianism and less surveillance.

And in conclusion…

I guess it's not too hard to tell, from what I've said so far, that I would pick a political party that acknowledges limits, and is inclusive, fiscally liberal, economically leftist, socially liberal but pro-science, and more libertarian than authoritarian. This combination of political positions would, in my opinion, give us the best chance of navigating the collapse of industrial civilization as gracefully as possible.

Unfortunately, due to the realities of modern politics there is no such party and most of the political positions I favour are unlikely to win any elections in the near future. The details of those realities and their consequences will be the subject of my next post.

Navigating 21st Century Hopelessness

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Published on The Doomstead Diner July 16, 2017

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Is our techno-industrial way of life fundamentally benevolent?  Is it advisable to continue perpetuating a civilization that is predicated by non-renewable fossil energy sources as well as unsustainable rates of renewable resource extraction?  Our civilization requires an ever growing GDP to be considered healthy.  This is a measure of production in terms of consumption.  Our literal benchmark for the health of our society is based on how much we can consume in a year as a nation.  The reason for this is to create monetary profit for the individuals of this society whom have shares in the corporations controlling this production.  The actual physical wealth of the world is subjugated to the tune of dollars and cents.  To make this pathway possible it requires a proletariat class willing to sell their lives for an hourly rate.  This hourly rate is the lowest possible rate so as to not reduce the profit that’s stolen from the resources of the Earth and the energies of its peoples.  This hourly rate is about making money and not about stewardship of any kind.  It does not have to be like this, but that is a delusory sentiment based on idealism. 

The road to ruin for our species began with agriculture.  Before agriculture emerged there was no need for money, and so it did not exist.  Agriculture allows for civilization which requires money to function.  With the creation of money we stratify into economic classes of people.  Once money is created life becomes about servicing this need for monetary acquisition.  Before money life is about engaging with nature to acquire food, fuel, fiber, medicine and shelter.  In aggregate these actions create a healthy human culture.  Agriculture allows for money and removes the limiting factors for our numbers.  Before agriculture the limiting factor is the amount of food that can be sustainably hunted and gathered.  The hunter/gatherer life is mostly nomadic as we follow the animals and plants through the seasons which define their lifecycles.  Our lives are imbued with rich somatic meaning as we engage with the body of nature.  We are from this Earth, and we inhabit it as a corporeal being made of the elements.  We evolved both physically and spiritually within the framework of our physical Earth.  Our health depends on engaging with nature to create life and its meaning.  The fall from paradise began with domestication which is nothing less than the taming of wild nature.  Domestication is tandem to agriculture and literally creates civilization.  What is being civilized if not the opposite of wild?  The two are anathema to one another. 

Agriculture means that we stop moving around.  It means that we domesticate ourselves as well as the wild beasts of nature.  It sets up the conditions that allows for a great competition between us and nature.  All of a sudden our culture becomes one of domination and control rather than harmony.  Being rooted in one place we begin building monuments to hubris.  We get bored and invent competition.  We stockpile food and create war and plague.  We set up the conditions for disease and famine and warfare (although nomadic people still do occasionally fight with opposing tribes).  We argue and debate and create inequality amongst our people.  Life becomes a struggle to create meaning and avoid boredom.  Eventually, as we move further and further from our natural origin, habitat, and culture the enchantment of being evaporates. We are left with a driving urge to consume to fill this void of meaning that emerges due to our domestication.  Time continues forward and our habits create technologies to service convenience.  We become lazy and our bodies grow fat with our sedentary nature which arises from our domesticated captivity.  No longer do we need our bodies for anything more than acquiring money.  We then want pleasure to fend off boredom and meaninglessness.  Life is no longer about dancing in the wild where we are from and where we return to.  Civilization is nothing more than something to do in the great illusion that we create for ourselves.  This is the way that it is.  The Matrix was born with the first surplus of cereal grain. 

Is there anything that can be done about this?  It seems to me that we are at the end of this failed experiment in hubris.  There is no harmony in domination and control and consumption.  There is only waste, disease, and poison by way of ecocide and genocide.  Our quest for the production of unlimited energy against the gradient of entropy has created cancer.    In the end we cannot dominate nature.  Aside from money the quest for domination  is the great fallacy of civilization.  We cannot think our way out of the limiting factors of ecology.  Our modern techno-industrial civilization will run out of the fossil blood that sustains it.  We will lose the capacity to safely maintain the nuclear power plants that liter the surface of the Earth.  They will spew out DNA damaging clouds of radioactivity as they have already begun doing.  The rain will become poisonous to life.  As we fight to continue this failing technotriumphalism we will continue increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere which will continue heating the human supporting biosphere.  Natural disasters will continue increasing in number and severity.  Our hubris has metastasized into a cancer that will shrink our settlements as the habitable regions atrophy.  Nothing is going to stop this process now.  All that remains is answering the question of what to do about this inevitability.  We have entered into the age of doom. 

There is no escaping this destiny that we have perpetuated.  The most unfortunate aspect about this hopelessness is that man cannot live without hope.  Hope makes life worth living.  Is hope itself a delusion?  What are we to hope for?  The nature of existence is a destiny with death.   The time we have between birth and death needs to be animated by meaning.  Meaning is derived from a harmony with all life.  Our civilization is marked by domination and control.  There is no harmony in control.  The great struggle is finally about the nature of life because life wants to live.  We must maintain ourselves within the boundary of our skin while we are here walking the Earth.  The overwhelming desire is to do this devoid of pain and misery.  The tragedy of man is to think that he can avoid his own nature by the creation of a technological utopia.  Life cannot be about domination and control, but that is what man forces it to be.  We are teetering in a suspended animation just before the moment of expiration.  We are flailing about in denial of this process of resolution.  Maturation as a species must culminate in an acceptance of suffering and death.  We must accept our temporary nature, stop struggling, and lie down in the great current of life.  We swim against this entropic process everyday as we participate in this civilization.  We collectively attempt to keep the center from flying apart under the pressures of our own technologically created centrifuge.  We struggle in vain against the pressures of physical dissolution.  We create illusions to fight against the natural process of becoming to fall apart. 

The first act was rife with physical struggle within the framework of existing in harmony with nature.  Hubris arose and we thought we could become gods using the power of physical manipulation.  We thought we could master the universe with our cleverness.  We are collectively a breaking wave, and nothing will stop the pull of gravity as we are recycled back into the void which we originally manifested from.    Idealism is nothing more than the ravings of a mental lunatic.  Idealism is a delusion that is born from the struggle to acquire more than we need.  Fighting against entropy is finally not worth it.  Yet this fight is what it means to inhabit a physical body. 

In the final analysis life must be about observing beauty.  Without beauty it is not worth living.  We have made a mess of this beautiful blue/green orb that’s floating about the universe.  We have partied our way to desolation.  Yet the Earth keeps spinning around in outer space in its dance with the sun that sustains us.  Every morning the sun reemerges to give us another day of life.  Our great challenge is to honor this life by creating beauty and not it’s opposite.  We have created a lot of ugliness.  Maybe the secret to this 21st century hopelessness is to learn how to make beauty out of malevolence.  Or maybe we should just stop struggling and accept the final act of misery which we have written for ourselves?  Or maybe we can simply embrace our collective ugliness with grace?  Without love and beauty this great struggle that is life is not worth it.  The greatest challenge that we face is learning to love and observe beauty even as love and beauty vanish under the oppression of our own collective delusions. 

The nature of a body is to act.  How are we to act?  We should act to minimize suffering for all sentient beings while honoring our bodily nature.  Every day is a new day to make the right decisions.   Yet every day requires a certain amount of money.  This is why my conclusion is that a lifestyle that requires no money is the only truly benevolent lifestyle.  That lifestyle is a fiction in this world we have created.  This world is quite literally hell on Earth.  Therefore we must learn to love and find whatever beauty we can while in hell.  We must not resist as we realize our ultimate destiny of assimilation with the machine we have created.  I’ve tried finding work arounds to the truth that life is suffering, but the only way to win is to let go, stop resisting, and accept the nature of this great delusion.  Manifestation is transience in action, and our resistance arises within that transience only to dissolve back into the void that is death.  All that is created within that resistance is more suffering.  Yet still we must act in the world, and how should we act when our actions only serve to create more suffering?  The heart of our civilization is the creation of suffering, and to participate only adds to this toll.  Not participating in this civilization can be our only spiritual redemption.  For the life of me, and my children, I cannot figure out how to not participate. 

The Economics of Unconventional Oils (externalities be damned)

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Published on The Doomstead Diner on July 13, 2017

Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

The Economics of Unconventional Oils (externalities be damned)

There are a multitude of reasons why the pursuit of unconventional oils represents obscene
environmental vandalism. It is homicide, suicide and ecocide. Water table contamination, surface
water contamination, destruction of arboreal and agricultural land and the triggering of earthquakes
are well known consequences. The carbon emissions are markedly greater than conventional oil
production and will vastly increase the probability of near term human extinction from climate
catastrophe.1
Irrespective of the trivial matter of human extinction, the purpose of this article is to focus on short
term profits, the only matter of interest to those vocal local yokels in politics and the media. This
article aims only to assess the economic viability of unconventional oils in a capitalist market, while
blithely disregarding any externalities they impose. Let us look at the pursuit of unconventional oils
solely as a cold blooded business proposition from the point of view of a self serving psychopath
interested only in short term greed. To hell with the suffering and death of most species on this
planet or the well-being (or even existence of) future human generations.
In this article I acknowledge key energy thought leaders such as Hall, Murphy and Lambert and
especially Louis Arnoux whose "five fingers of net energy allocation" metaphor I previously
borrowed and modified. I also acknowledge bloggers that have helped clarify concepts about
EROEI and net energy who I may have inadvertently borrowed from. Nicole Foss likened
harvesting unconventional oils to sucking dirty drops of stale beer out of a floor mat, a useful,
graphic and memorable image. However analytical readers may want a more quantitative argument
before they can be convinced about the economic worth or otherwise of unconventional oils.
Let us start from first principles: (for further explanations and graphs regarding energy and
climate concepts, please see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfVphmxPOXo )
1. Material wealth can be defined as having easy access to a wide variety of high quality goods
and services
2. Material wealth in our industrial economies is derived almost entirely from our energy
utilisation of fossil fuels, whether directly e.g. jet fuel for planes, coal for electricity
generation; or indirectly e.g. fossil fuels used to construct nuclear power plants or so-called
renewable energy projects. Human and animal muscle power pale into insignificance when
compared with the vast energy capacity of fossil fuels to manufacture and deliver our
modern day goods and services. Mass agriculture is also utterly dependent on fossil fuels.
3. Petroleum is the king of all fossil fuels in terms of its utility, flexibility and energy density. It
constitutes many essential, irreplaceable links in our industrial manufacturing and supply
chains. Without those links, the chains are shattered and industrial civilisation grinds to a
halt. We have no large scale replacement for conventional petroleum. None.
4. The richest, the most valuable sources of oil have been the conventional oilfields prior to, at
and shortly after peak production (rich being defined as bearing oil which is easy to extract
and refine and is quantified as having high EROEI, which is energy returned divided by
energy invested). Conventional oilfields start out being rich (high value fields) and
inevitably become poor (low value fields), with plummeting EROEI on the down slope of
the Hubbert curve as they deplete. EROEI defines the value of an oilfield2
5. Net energy is energy returned minus energy invested and is analogous to net income. Gross
income is meaningless. It is only after we have deducted business expenses, loan
repayments, taxes etc. from our gross income that we can calculate our net income and
know our true wealth (or poverty) and our true purchasing power. A high net income allows
generous allocation for many different expenditures including luxuries and fripperies. That
is what it means to be rich. A low net income forces us to contract our previously complex
lifestyles, to simplify our lives and to focus on basic needs. That is what it means to be poor.
High and low net energy availability are exactly analogous to high and low net incomes. Just
as gross income is meaningless, gross energy production is meaningless. Therefore all
those fancy looking graphs published by IEA, EIA, CERA, USGS etc which only report
gross liquid hydrocarbon production nowadays are meaningless. On the upslope of the
global Hubbert curve in the old days of high EROEI, i.e. before 2005/6, it was reasonable to
treat world gross oil production as being roughly equivalent to net oil availability. Now that
we are well down the global Hubbert curve in 2017, any figures and graphs that only report
gross oil production and do not at least attempt to estimate net oil availability must be
regarded as fraudulent. Even if world gross oil output appears to be the same in 2017 as it
was in 2005, if our net oil availability has halved, then the FACT is that we have lost half
our wealth. Net energy availability defines the material wealth and complexity of a
society. As net energy availability declines, industrial society becomes materially poorer and
is forced to simplify and to focus on basic needs3. Complex technological systems are
inevitably lost because it is no longer possible to allocate energy to support them. Pension
plans, promises of future retirement payments based on old, false assumptions of endless
future economic growth, will never be delivered.
6. Industrial societies are becoming materially poorer and are being forced to simplify as
net energy availability declines. This is happening right now. This is an utterly
inescapable fact, a law of physics as absolute and as certain as the law of gravity, no
matter what any mainstream economist or politician (= deluded idiot who talks about "return
to growth") will have you believe. The pie is shrinking, however one particular glutton is
hell-bent on keeping “their” slice of the pie the same size as back in the “good-old-days”
before Peak Oil. In a zero sum game, this can only achieved by escalating their background
activities of fraud, theft and murder – otherwise known as propping up the US petrodollar
and intensifying US "regime change" foreign policy. This arrogant sense of entitlement is
now hugely increasing the risk of global nuclear conflict4. The only possible way we can
maintain global peace is to educate everyone about the inevitability of our energy descent
and implement voluntary and fair reduction of fossil fuel use by everyone, everywhere. Such
reduction is inevitable, the only question is whether we pursue systematic, planned
reduction or whether we go cold turkey and collapse into violent chaos. Maintaining peace
will require a miraculous mass epiphany and widespread magical transformation eg America
turning into a socialist, rural, agrarian, non-violent society – everybody essentially becoming
Amish. Judging by the quality of our current so-called “leaders”, including the ignorant
and/or stupid and/or corrupt “knowledge leaders” in the universities, and the clueless,
deluded, sedated and distracted general public who blame “the other” for all their problems,
chaotic collapse is a dead certainty (dead being the operative word, die-off being the
operative phrase).
7. Net energy availability falls of a cliff when EROEI falls below 5:1, however industrial
collapse will occur some time before that (according to calculations by many energy
experts). Indeed economic stagnation and contraction occur when EROEI falls to around
10:1 (which is happening now) and that alone can trigger sudden financial/economic
collapse (and/or warfare) before further EROEI decline is able to occur. In other words if
EROEI declines to, say, 9:1 and society collapses, oil output will then suddenly drop to
virtually zero, rather than following a theoretical smooth downward curve with
progressively declining EROEI ratios.
8. Many pundits have stated that money is a proxy for energy. At face value this sounds
reasonable, given that money is a proxy for goods and services and the production/delivery
of all goods and services are mediated by energy. However such a premise also assumes a
fair "level playing field" market with all parties being treated equally (no government
subsidies or sweetheart bank loans to favoured sons) all parties facing perfect competition,
with everyone behaving rationally, applying sane valuations to all goods and services, with
perfect information available to them at all times and with honest interaction between them
(assumptions made by neoclassical, neoliberal capitalist economists who live in a theoretical
world and have zero understanding of the real world).5
With those considerations in mind, let us assess the economic viability of conventional versus
unconventional oils using simple arithmetic:
If one US dollar is the proxy for one litre of oil6 and I invest one dollar in a pristine conventional
oil field with an EROEI of 100:1, I will get a gross return of $100 and a net return of 100 minus 1
or $99. This is my profit or net income, a huge windfall.
As the oil field ages, even though the total production of oil rises exponentially on the upslope of
the Hubbert curve (and absolute profits skyrocket), the EROEI and net profit per dollar invested
inevitably decline, albeit imperceptibly at first. At peak oil production the EROEI may be perhaps
18 or 20:1. Beyond peak, on the depletion side of the curve, even with an EROEI of 10:1 the profit
is still reasonably good. A $1 investment now provides a gross return of $10 and a net return of $9.
Conventional oil fields typically produce prolifically for several decades and after peak may decline
by about 6% per year.
Let us consider an unconventional oil source now. Calculations of EROEI vary, with wild
overestimates by oil industry pundits, but full life cycle analyses of unconventional oils show them
to be universally dismal whether they be shale oil, tar sands or Fischer-Tropsch (gas to liquid or
coal to liquid) oil. Tar sands probably have EROEI of 3:1 or less. Shale oil EROEI is at best around
3:1 in a pristine shale oil "play" in the middle of a “sweet spot”. Often hundreds of exploration
drillings are required before suitable “sweet spots” are located. All that unproductive drilling
activity takes energy (which has not been taken into account in many studies, hence shale oil
probably has a true EROEI well under 3:1). Hydraulic fracturing is very energy intensive. There is a
reason why shale oil is also called “tight” oil. The impermeable kerogen rock holds tightly on to its
oil, only giving it up when subjected to violent fracturing by high pressure injection of chemicals
and sand. Shale plays reach peak output quickly e.g. within 5 years of starting production. Just 3
years after peak production they have typically depleted by 80-90%.
If we think of money as a proxy for energy, that means if I invest $1 in the best brand new shale oil
play, I get $3 gross return and $2 net return. However any “profit” is entirely fleeting due to rapid
depletion. Furthermore the fact that all such scams are deeply mired in irredeemable debt from day
one, means that over their lifetime, their books can never balance. Compare that return with a $9 net
return for a depleting but debt free post peak conventional oil field with EROEI 10:1. This means
that only an idiot would ever invest in a shale oil company compared with a conventional oil
company, even if the reserves of the latter were depleting7.
The ONLY way unconventional oil economics can ever be on par with conventional oil economics
is when conventional oil EROEI falls to 3:1, however complex industrial civilisation simply cannot
function at such a low EROEI, it will collapse well before then. This means that the technological
capacity to harvest unconventional oil (a difficult and complex process) will be unavailable then.
Hence unconventional oil will NEVER be economically competitive with conventional oil.
NEVER.
Looking at things another way: For high EROEI oilfields, production costs are low and their oil can
be sold cheaply while still enabling them to repay previous modest capital expenditures, allowing
them to become debt free and to make a good profit over their lifetimes. For low EROEI oilfields,
production costs are high from day one and their oil must be sold dearly in order to repay their high
capex before they can ever become profitable. So long as conventional oil has a higher EROEI than
unconventional oil, it will ALWAYS be cheaper to produce conventional oil, which will ALWAYS
be priced lower than unconventional oil in a properly competitive market8. Unconventional oil will
ALWAYS be priced out of a truly free market and can NEVER be economically competitive.
Note that such considerations depend only on EROEI and are utterly independent of the
contemporary, extant price of oil. Those pundits who state that if only oil prices rise again to,
say $100 or even $150 per barrel, that unconventional oils will then become economically
viable, are dead wrong. If the price of oil rises, the exploration and production costs of
unconventional oil will also proportionately rise and any financial returns will never be able to
repay capex, ensuring that unconventional oil will always be uneconomic.
In a bogus “free” market, unconventional oils will always have to be sold below production cost
i.e. sold at a loss, if they are ever to be sold at all. The losses are borne by sucker investors and a
taxpaying public who were unwittingly duped into subsidising those scams. Capex loans for
unconventional oil projects can never and will never be repayed. This brings to mind the old joke:
Q: What is the easiest way to make a small fortune? A: Start with a large one
Why then have so many unconventional oil projects been established in North America? Because
their so-called "free” market is NOT a fair "level playing field" transparent market populated by
rational players who value commodities sanely, have perfect information available to them at all
times and who deal with each other in honest ways. Unconventional oil projects have been
surreptitiously subsidised by the unwitting tax paying public (in the form of tax breaks given to
those oily scammers by the government, so their country can achieve "energy independence"). The
North American market is populated by irrational players: greedy banks eager to hand out loans
under ZIRP and QE 9 and stupid investors who base their decisions on bogus information with no
understanding of any big picture issues. All driven by the monstrous fraud and dishonesty pervading
the industry.
Will unconventional oil harvesting die a natural death once sucker investors who have lost their
shirts learn their bitter lesson and no further clueless investors are forthcoming? You can fool some
of the people all of the time, hence snake oil scams will still pop up now and then in the years to
come. As long as this bogus economic system continues to limp along, there will always be one
sector of the population who have more dollars than sense. More than that, however, some
unconventional oil projects will still persist irrespective of any economic “rationalities”, mainly for
military and “energy security” reasons, mandated and pushed through by Deep States which are not
governed by true capitalist principles. That includes the Fascist States of America, which follows
Bernie Madoff type capitalism, not Adam Smith type capitalism.
Let us consider another hypothetical scenario conjured up by the "thousand year shale oil supply"
food fraudster named Geoffrey Annison. Let us imagine that the oil industry spreads its tentacles
worldwide to frack the living daylights out of every shale play they can possibly find, and every
drop of net oil is used to feed "business as usual" industrial scale agriculture. No oil is used for any
other purposes except for agriculture and for the extraction of more oil, not even for military
purposes, in this fantasy scenario. Surely this means that even though the EROEI is very poor at
3:1, but because we allocate oil for no other purposes, we can therefore continue industrial scale
agriculture for another thousand years? Absolutely not. Oil fracking is a high technology activity
requiring complex machinery, complex chemicals (eg special fracking fluids) and complex
processes (eg horizontal drilling) and also requires delivery of all the equipment to remote areas
(with associated housing and logistical support of their personnel) and transport of the oil out. Not
to mention the high tech purification and refinement processes. That all requires a complex
industrial infrastructure (and the manufacture and maintenance of all necessary equipment and
parts, from engines to microprocessors). The existence of such complex industrial infrastructure
requires high net energy sources with EROEI of at least 8 or 9:1. This means that the low EROEI
shale oil industry can NEVER be self perpetuating, it will always require input from higher EROEI
energy sources to operate. It is a monstrous scam. The only "benefit" of unconventional oil
extraction has been to slow the terminal decline of total liquid hydrocarbon output to date, which is
nevertheless poised to fall off a cliff in a few short years to come.
CONCLUSIONS:
– EROEI defines the value of an oilfield. A high EROEI oilfield is a rich, high value field
that can produce oil easily (=cheaply, if we regard money as the proxy for energy) and is
thus also able to sell its oil cheaply ie at a low break even price (a low price which still
allows for good profit as well as repayment of capex, which ensures overall financial
solvency of the oilfield)
– A poor, low value oilfield has low EROEI, extracts oil with great difficulty (=dearly) and
must sell its oil dearly ie at a high break even price if its debts are ever to be repaid.
– On a “level playing field” free market, unconventional oil can NEVER compete price wise
with conventional oil. If unconventional oil is to be sold at all, it must be sold below
production cost which means that the capex of unconventional oilfields can never be repaid
and they can NEVER be financially solvent and will ALWAYS be lifetime money losers.
– Net energy availability (or more specifically net energy availability per capita per year or
NEA/C/Y 3) is the primary index of true material wealth of a society (secondary indices
being fairness of energy allocation and appropriateness of energy allocation). I assert that
NEA/C/Y is a much better index of material wealth than GDP. Global average NEA/C/Y
is scheduled to plummet catastrophically in the next few years and this will affect different
parts of the world patchily. Russia and Iran, harnessing China's capacity to turn that last
remaining high EROEI energy to wealth (=goods and services), will be less affected in the
short term – unless America fabricates some bogus false flag excuse to launch a “sour
grapes” first strike nuclear attack against them4, which will bring about mutually assured
destruction. Even if by some fluke we are able to escape nuclear Armageddon, ultimately
nobody will be spared from the eventual collapse of fossil fool industrial civilisation.
G. Chia July 2017
Footnotes:
1. http://www.salon.com/2017/05/08/pollution-from-canadas-oil-sands-may-beunderreported_
partner/ I consider near term human extinction by 2100 due to climate
change related loss of habitat as a real possibility, even a high probability. This probability
increases with every new unconventional oil or gas project pursued. However the meme of
NTHE within nine years by 2026 due to climate change alone is utter rubbish and I have
completely falsified that nonsensical idea in previous essays. Nuclear war can certainly
destroy us any time soon, but that will not represent NTHE caused by climate change alone.
Climate chaos will be just one of several triggers for nuclear war. Reckless brinkmanship
fossil fuel politics (whether oil or pipeline related) i.e. resource depletion related conflict, is
a much more likely nuclear trigger in the short term.
2. EROEI analysis continues to evolve and definitions continue to be clarified. For example if
a depleting conventional oilfield needs X Joules of energy in the form of diesel fuel to run
the saline pumps to extract 2X Joules worth of crude oil, traditionally it would have been
described as having an EROEI of 2:1. The fallacy here is that the crude oil needs to be
transported to a refinery, fractionated into different components and the diesel component
must be trucked back to the oilfield to run the pumps. All those energy costs were
traditionally not taken into account. Such an arrangement may not in fact provide sufficient
net energy return to do any more than pursue a pointless extract-transport-refine-transportextract
loop. Hence an oilfield traditionally designated as having EROEI of 2:1 may in
reality, using honest accounting, have only an EROEI of 1:1 and may therefore be
completely useless apart from accelerating entropy and carbon emissions. Nevertheless
EROEI concepts are fundamentally important for us to work out the thermodynamic worth
of energy ventures and approximate values can be very useful for us to make informed
judgements.
3. http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/2016/11/12/post-peak-oil-slides-for-diners/ More
precisely the major parameter which defines the wealth of a society is net energy
availability per capita per year or NEA/C/Y (other parameters for wealth definition are the
fairness of energy distribution and the appropriateness of energy allocation). Examples: We
do not regard India as a rich country even though its total net energy availability per year
may be, say, ten times that of a European country. That is because per head of population per
year, the net energy availability may only be one tenth that of the European country – the
average Indian lives in abject poverty. Even if NEA/C/Y of two particular countries are the
same, but if , say, 99% of the wealth of one particular country is corruptly and unfairly
concentrated in the hands of a 1% parasite class, we do not regard that country as rich,
because of the vast majority of the population will be living in poverty. Similarly if energy
(=wealth) allocations are highly inappropriate, then a country cannot be regarded as well off.
If a country allocates the bulk of its wealth to adequate food, water, sanitation, housing,
health, education and environmental governance sectors to benefit everybody, the people
will actually be quite well off eg Bhutan. If however a country allocates the bulk of its
wealth to military expenditure, corporate managerial parasitic activity (eg in the health
insurance industry, the banking sector etc) and bombastic political campaigns, neglecting the
more vital needs of ordinary people, the populace cannot be regarded as being well off.
Short of a popular revolution and complete reform of all their institutions, this is the
inescapable, inevitable fate of the Fascist States of America. Poverty.
4. The USA no longer has high EROEI conventional oil fields and their attempts at achieving
"energy independence" by harvesting domestic unconventional oils have proven to be
spectacular economic failures. Some schemes have been astoundingly idiotic, such as
ethanol from Nebraskan corn. You simply cannot cheat physics and the laws of
thermodynamics, no matter how loud your PR spin. America's greatest fear is the fact that
Russia, Iran and some central Asian states, whose oil output have historically been curtailed
for economic/political reasons, will possess the last remaining high EROEI conventional
fields in the world (relatively high EROEI compared with the rest of the world, however
Russia and Iran are also past peak oil production now). This is because the historically
unrestrained high volume oil producers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE are poised for
economic collapse in the near future, just as Egypt and Syria collapsed when their declining
oil production intersected with their increasing domestic consumption. Iraq is a wild card,
likely to remain in turmoil but just as likely to enter the fold of Iran, because Iraq is mostly
Shi'ite and has suffered terribly from the brutality of ISIS and Al Qaeda offshoot Sunni
Salafists, which were the monstrous creations of the USA and Saudi Arabia. The impending
relative petropower rise of Russia and Iran, with the accompanying decline of the USA, is
why the USA has been so hell-bent on regime change and on installing US puppets in those
countries, employing all manner of fabricated fake news to bring it about. That will not
happen because the world is now wise to the dirty tricks of the CIA. If Russia and Iran liaise
with China (with its massive industrial capacity), if those three trade in their own currencies
and sideline the US petrodollar, that triumvirate will economically dominate the world.
Europe and East Asia will inevitably gravitate towards them. This is in fact happening right
now, especially with the “belt and road” initiatives. The USA, who call themselves the
"indispensable nation" (indispensable to themselves), will be marginalised and will descend
into abject poverty even as the nations they despise and demonise achieve reasonable
"moderate prosperity". This will grate on American sensibilities no end. America will never
be great again but it will certainly grate again, just as it grated under Bush Jr, only worse.
The entrenchment of fanatical chickenshit armchair warmongering right wing psychopaths
in the US administration, irrespective of whichever political party occupies the White
House, bodes ill for the world, particularly as their meme of a "winnable nuclear war" (using
first strikes and theoretical anti ballistic missile shields) continues to bounce around the
hollow echoing corridors of that mental asylum10. The only role the USA now plays in the
world is that of spoiler, mass murderer and probable harbinger of human extinction by
nuclear war. The USA is not simply a schoolyard bully who steals the ball and runs off,
spoiling the game for everybody. The USA is a schoolyard bully who wears suicide bomb
underpants and is planning to detonate it on the playground, believing that their kevlar
jacket will prevent their own head from being blown off.
5. In a hypothetical ideal free and fair market economy, money should be a proxy for energy.
In the real world, that is only partly true. Unfortunately in many cases, money (and most
money exists as digital currency in the stockmarket) represents pure vapour with no value
whatsoever or even negative value as in the case of the collateral debt obligations of the
subprime mortgage scam, which in reality were liabilities, so-called “toxic assets”.
Unconventional oil scams are even more toxic, both literally and figuratively and are only
promoted by fools or liars. “EIA’s projections have been off by wide margins. In 2014 the
agency cut its estimates about the amount of recoverable oil in California’s Monterey shale
by 96 percent. And in 2012, research from the U.S. Geological Survey forced the EIA to cut
its estimates of how much shale was accessible in Poland by 99 percent"
http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/11/10/sapping-thesweetspotshowlongwillusenergyboomreallylast.
html. It is true that some people made
money from those scams, specifically people who cashed out before those pyramid schemes
reached their peak share price (or from short selling just before price collapse). However the
only people who promote those scams as profitable enterprises are people who should be in
jail.
6. This overview is simplified for the sake of explaining certain concepts. Proper detailed
analysis would specify exactly what that one litre of invested “oil” consists of (petrol?
diesel? or a mix?) and that the energy returned should also be in the form of similar refined
fractions, to compare like with like. It should also incorporate the energy costs of crude oil
transportation/refinement and distribution of the refined products.
7. Given the monstrous level of deceit in the oil industry, even investment in conventional oil
nowadays is a money losing prospect due to fraudulently overstated reserves. Consider
Saudi Aramco who tried to sell 5% of their assets in 2016. Despite glossy brochures they
refused to disclose their true remaining oil reserves or allow any inspection. Independent
valuers Wood Mackenzie reckon that Aramco have overvalued their assets by 500%
http://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/Cooking-The-Books-Saudi-Aramco-Could-Be-
Overvalued-By-500.html. Few took that bait, hence the 2016 offer fizzled. They will try a
formal IPO in 2018 but only suckers will buy into it. The only sane investment nowadays is
not oil or gold or silver or diamonds but climate resilient land on which you can establish
your off grid permaculture homestead (and the purchase of associated necessary items eg
tiny house, solar panels etc). The only truly valuable currency in the world is the currency of
trust you must build with “aware” people. Unfortunately not all “aware” people are
necessarily trustworthy.
8. It is a different matter if the conventional oil producers unite politically to raise their oil
prices well above production costs to maximise their profits, however they have not done so
in recent years. Indeed they have been using artificially low oil prices as a weapon.
9. Zero interest rate policy only applies to interest on the savings of bank depositors, those
working stiffs who struggle, scrimp and save to put a little something aside for a rainy day in
these difficult times. ZIRP maximises bank profits while screwing the little guy. The banks
of course continue to charge interest on any loans they provide to any borrowers eg
investors in shale oil scams. Those loans are created out of thin air by the fractional reserve
banking system, hocus pocus made ever easier by government quantitative easing policy.
The funny money of QE is also created out of thin air by the government. It does not cause
general inflation because it is money which is unavailable to the general public, only to big
ticket borrowers. It does however cause inflation of share prices in the stockmarket which
feeds ever more irrational exuberance among the Ponzi investors AKA suckers. Whatever
the situation, the banksters will still get their year end bonuses for any loans they hand out,
whether those loans are ever repaid or not. This is the definition of Bernie Madoff
capitalism.
10. In comparing Trump's White House with a mental asylum, I must apologise if I have caused
any offence to any mental asylums.

Interview with Ugo Bardi

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on June 7, 2017

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Climate, Fossil Fuels, Resources and All That

 

The MEDEAS project team at a recent meeting in Barcelona. At the center, the project coordinator, Jordi Solé, Another group of well-intentioned people engaged in saving the planet. Yes, we know it is difficult: we are doing our best. 
 
 
This interview was recorded this February and is reported here from the site of the European Project MEDEAS, only minimally edited. Take into account that none of the people involved (interviewers and interviewed) are native English speakers and you can understand why the grammar and the syntax are, well, let's just say "not perfect". Then, as in all non-edited interviews, the flow of the concepts is also far from being perfect. However, I thought to reproduce it here because it contains much of what I have been trying to say, lately. Maybe you'll find it interesting (U.B.)

On 17th February 2017, during MEDEAS first General Assembly in Brno, Czech Republic, Ugo Bardi from INSTM, partner of MEDEAS Project was interviewed by Mikuláš Černík for Deník Referendum, an independent online newspaper focused on social and environmental issues. The interview discussed how science nowadays can address challenges as climate change and possible limitations of resources for the transition to a low-carbon economy. The whole interview can be found below in English, while the original version is published in the newspaper’s webpage

 

 

 

 


INTERVIEW WITH PROF. UGO BARDI (UNIVERSITY OF FLORENCE, ITALY), IN BRNO, CZECH REPUBLIC (17.2.2017) DURING MEDEAS GENERAL ASSEMBLY.
 
Your main topic is resource depletion. Since the release of your book on the Limits to Growth, how has the situation changed?

 

 

 

The thread that runs through everything I study is resource depletion in the broadest sense. You can restrict its sense to minerals, which is to take the core meaning, but then there is also climate change. Climate change can be seen as the depletion of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases without overheating. So it’s also depletion—everything’s a question of depletion. And everything is a question of resources. People have spoken about limits to growth, which at one time was a very innovative concept, but these limits on growth derive from limits on resources, and that’s something we’re still working on.
 

 

 

You’re writing a blog called the Cassandra Legacy. How did you, as a scientist, decide it was necessary to write a blog?

 

 

 

Because many people speak about there being two cultures, humanist culture and scientific culture. And in my modest opinion, this is completely wrong. There are no two cultures, there is only one culture. And so a scientist should be within the limits as much as possible, should be a humanist as much as possible within the limits, should know something about hard science such as thermodynamics and physics, and so on. But unfortunately our world has fallen into the trap of overspecialization, which means that a lot of people study so much that eventually they know everything about nothing—which is the definition of a specialist. So we have specialists who know absolutely everything about nothing, which is a little useless in my opinion. So we need a modern view of science, and this is a concept that some of us are working on. It’s a new conceptualization that tends to deemphasize what we call “reductionist science”. To emphasize what we call “systemic science”, which looks at changes at the whole-system level. Because if you are a reductionist, you would say What is the problem? I’m slowly running out of fuel for my car. So you say, No problem, hydrogen will fix everything. If you follow a systems approach, you say well, okay, maybe hydrogen is a way to change the system, but how will the system react? I think that’s a fundamental part of the MEDEAS project we’re working on. To take a systems approach. We have a valuable collaborator in Brno as well. We’re sure we can get this done.

 

 


Do you think that, as a scientist, when you publish a scientific paper, it has any impact on a broader readership and on the general public and policymakers? How do you perceive the relationship between science and politics?

 

 

 

There is no difference. Scientific communication is just one of many kinds of communication. And that has to do with the fact that we communicate within a system. The world—call it the mediasphere or the cybersphere or the brainsphere—the world is a huge system in which ideas, comments, novelties, the news and everything moves and competes in a space. All these things grow, they evolve, they change and they take over spaces, and that’s the most “systemic system”, if you like. It is hugely interesting to study, and that’s what we’re doing. You might not have noticed, but my coworkers and I are developing models for dissemination, for spreading ideas in the websphere, the world wide web, in the mindspace. What we’ve discovered is that your message—you want to know the theory of messaging my coworkers and I are developing? Messages are made up of two parts—the message itself and the communicator who sends it. So the message must be simple enough that it can reproduce, but that’s not enough. The message has a signature that makes it recognized as ‘self/nonself’ and if it is not recognized as “self” it is discarded and the whole attempt to transmit it is useless. So what you do when you send the message is you send yourself. And that’s it. You don’t always hit people with facts. The relevant fact is you, because you are relevant. If you are relevant, you send a message which is understood. You need to understand who is sending the message, you need to understand what a person is. So if you don’t know what you are, you can’t send the message.

 

 


This leads me to the next question. Don’t you think that, when scientists put out messages to the public, the public may believe in their correctness and yet feel that what they say is overly pessimistic? That they’re not enough to make them change their behaviour? I’m talking about alarmism. Some people argue that when you scare people too much, as a consequence they won’t be willing to change their behaviour. Do you agree?

 

 

 

This is because most scientists are children when it comes to communication. They know very little, nothing in this field. I won’t use the term ignoramus, but the definition is that when you don’t know anything about something, you are an ignoramus on that topic. Scientific education doesn’t cover communication. So when you try to do work in a field you’re ignorant of, you may achieve zero. And you’re likely to make mistakes. Just think of riding a bicycle for the first time. You don’t know what a bicycle is, what pedals or brakes are, and so on. You don’t really know how a bicycle works. You fall off the bike straightaway. This is what happens when scientists try to communicate all these pessimistic things about climate science to the public. They’re using the wrong communication model. Their message—its penetration—doesn’t depend upon pessimism or optimism. This is a mistake. Think about Christianity. What is the message? It is that there will come an apocalypse. And it is spread easily. Even though it’s predicting an apocalypse. Because Christians knew much better – the old, the ancient Christians, they knew how to promulgate their message. They were able to emphasize the messenger. If you’re willing to get eaten by lions, then the message is important for you, it carries weight. But you must be ready to be eaten by lions to demonstrate the message is real and that, I think, scientists are not willing to do for Climate Science. Maybe we don’t need to arrive to that point but the essence is the same – it doesn’t matter if the message is optimistic or pessimistic. The power is not in the message, it’s in the messenger. The messenger must be believable and this is the problem with climate science. Scientists have made a lot of mistakes and they are presenting a contradictory message. Some scientists say, “don’t worry, we have the solution: you don’t have to do anything” and maybe they start babbling about hydrogen or nuclear energy or whatever. Other scientist say, “well, you have to make sacrifices” and they talk about investing in double paned glasses, using bicycles and the like. But these two messages are not compatible with each other. And if the messenger doesn’t send a coherent message, he or she is not believed.

 

 


What about the term peak oil—which was much more widely used in the recent past than it is today. Could you tell us how this term has evolved in public debate?

 

 

 

It’s a good example of how to spread a message. Generally because the message was simple: just two words. “Peak oil”. It has a ring to it, it was interesting, and it was simple enough to spread. And spread it did. These messages have a cycle. They peak, and then they go down. But I think the spread of this message was successful in the sense that it was not only viral, but became part of our culture. Its greatest diffusion came around ten years ago. Then it lost popularity a bit because people had difficulty understanding the term. They see that oil isn’t expensive right now and think that’s because it’s abundant. But that changes. It’s like limits to growth. It was criticised, rejected, demonised, but it was a successful concept, because it is still with us. We debate it, maybe over a long period, but still we debate it. And that’s what we can do with messages. They don’t necessarily need to take over the world, but they remain with us. They can’t be ignored.

 

 


Could you also tell us something about the project you’re currently involved in? About MEDEAS; and how it is changing the debate?

 

 

 

MEDEAS is an extremely important project, as a next step after Paris. Paris COP21 told us what we should do, and it was a very good meeting with a huge impact because the communication was taken care of by people who knew what they wanted to do. To have a message which will take root, it must be simple. So Paris – we had thousands of people, hundreds of models, tens of thousands of scenarios, the whole climate science with uncertainties and things like that and final result was one number: 2 °C. You condense everything into something like a piece of genetic code which will then be unpacked. You send a little virus to the mind with a very tiny chink of genetic code. It takes up residency in your brain. It reproduces and grows.

 

 


So do you really think the Paris agreement is a step forward in tackling climate change?

 

 

 

Absolutely. It was a remarkable success because it was well packaged. But the numbers in it are not enough, because we don’t know how to achieve them. And that’s what MEDEAS is answering. We give you another number—how much it will cost? If we can afford it and the degree of sacrifice it entails. How much are you willing to pay for your survival?

 

 


Let’s imagine that we achieve a post-carbon future. Who will be the loser and who the winner in the transition?

 

 

 

Some scientists in the MEDEAS group have developed a concept they call Thanatia, which refers to a world not meant to be—one in which people have survived, but the planet has died in terms of minerals. This means there is no longer any ability to mine rare minerals, and these minerals are what allowed us to build our civilization. The result is a future that is completely different. There are no more mineral resources like oil and cobalt, because these mineral resources are concentrated—you can’t just find them anywhere you want. If you need something that you lack but someone else has, you may have to fight to get it. But in the future, this will no longer be done, because we will stick to resources that are abundant, like sunlight, silicon, aluminium, magnesium, etc. Society can be built in a locally-structured way that may give rise to less competition for resources and fewer wars.

 

 


In our country, the Czech Republic, if we want to achieve what was promised in the Paris agreement, we need to cut our coal consumption, despite its abundance as a resource. How would you advocate this position with the public?

 

 

 

I don’t think this is such a big problem. I mean, the Czech Republic is a very small part of the world and of what’s going on in the world. And if the world starts moving in a certain direction, the Czech Republic will follow. We have coal in Germany, in Poland, in Ukraine, and these regions are burning it. It has to be phased out slowly, and I think we are moving in that direction because the cost is really increasing. Coal is not as cheap as it seems. In the future, you won’t be able to afford to burn the coal, whatever the politicians may say. Mr. Trump said “we have a thousand years of coal” and this is an alternative fact, in other words, a lie. I think we will cease to burn coal sometime over the next decade or two. And hopefully we will do so because we have agreed to stop burning coal and also because we have agreed to deploy renewable energy and replace it.

 

 


So basically what you’re saying is, the sooner we make the move, the more we gain?

 

 

 

Yes, that’s correct. The change is going to take place anyway. People talk about problems and that’s bad. Once you say there are problems, you begin to think of solutions. But not all problems are problems, and not all solutions are solutions. If you remember the “Jewish Problem” at the time of Adolf Hitler, well, once you start to say the Jews are a problem, you start thinking of the solution, and the solution they found was a very bad idea – as we all know. So we don’t have to think in terms of problems/solutions – that may lead us to very bad ideas. Instead, we must emphasize change. That change is ongoing, and you have a choice: either you go along with the change, or you reject it. If you reject it, the change will change you, and you will not be happy but will be swept away by the change. In other words, you can solve a problem but there is no solution for a change. There is only one way to face change: to adapt to it.

 

 


Ok, thanks very much.

 

 

 

You’re not going to ask me anything about Italian football…?

 

 

 

 

 

Atlantic Crossing

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Published on Peak Surfer on May 21, 2017

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"There are some black swans in aviation’s future that could tip its economic balance. The three biggies are peak oil, climate weirding and cyberwarfare."

 

 

We are in London this week and on our trip across the pond we could not help but think how much more we would much prefer to have gotten here by sail.

 

 

 
 
Sadly, there is a distinct competitive advantage that favors passenger jets. If following tradewinds for an ocean crossing means devoting days and weeks for such travel, clipper ships are not coming back any time soon. Still, given the past century’s advances in materials and computing power, there are great opportunities for innovation in Atlantic crossings.
 
 
There are also some black swans that could tip the balance against flying. The three biggies are peak oil, climate weirding and cyberwarfare.
 
 
 
A foretaste of what the future sails may look like, we can go to companies like Kite Ships and SkySails, each of which develops various forms of large, free-flying sails without masts, which are anchored at the bow of the ship with long, adjustable ropes.
 
 
They are hoisted and reefed automatically and are controlled and positioned by wind situation by means of an electronic control system. The automation does not require additional crew and the lack of a fixed rig does not disturb the ship in port. The sail is deployed several hundred meters high, and draws advantage of winds that are smoother and stronger than at sea level.
 
***
 
Norska Vindskip has another vision, appealing in its simplicity. The designers intend to remove the sails and rigging altogether, but believe they can achieve 80 percent emission reductions by an aerodynamic vessel design where the hull itself acts as a sail. The vessel is designed as a hybrid, which first accelerates on gas and then balances between wind and supportive gas to maintain a constant speed. When the ship comes up to speed it encounters a backwind. Although this apparent wind gives effect on the hull’s symmetrical aerodynamic profile, and generates traction even when there is no wind – there is a contributing factor to large emissions reductions. The concept includes a computerized navigation system using GPS and weather data to adjust the route continuously, to constantly give the ship the most optimal angle to the wind as possible. It is thought then to hold 18 knots in average and large portions of the time is powered exclusively by wind.
 
 
18 knots is still not the same as 570 miles per hour. A 6-hour crossing by a 757 would take 170+ hours at Vindskip speed — a week-long voyage. Surely we can do better. We need a killer app for ocean crossings.
 
 
Will Nodvik, who studied Computer Engineering at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, writes on Quora:
 
 
The foiling AC-72s sailed [in 2013] during the America’s Cup top out at around 40 knots in super heavy conditions. Average container ships move at around 20 knots. The mast on an AC-72 is 40m high. Keep in mind that this mast is a rigid wing. The AC-72 is the lightest, fastest, most highly advanced boat. These masts are the strongest material possible since no expense was spared in their construction.
 
 
Forty knots (46 mph) is still only 8 percent of the cruising speed of a Boeing 747. Figure three and one half days, if top speed could be held the whole way.

 

The America’s Cup Challenge resumes this June in Bermuda’s Great Sound. The AC-72 (72-foot) yacht that Oracle Team USA sailed to a historic come-from-behind 9-8 victory over Emirates Team New Zealand on San Francisco Bay in September 2013 is gone. Obsolete.

 

Replacing it is a smaller, lighter AC-50 (50-foot) catamaran with 79-foot carbon fiber wing sail and new alloy hydrofoils to give it near zero drag. All the competitors in this year’s trials are expected to fly above water for 100% of the race time.

 

The sail’s drag is one-third to one-half that of four years ago, while producing about twice as much power. The control system comes from the Airbus A350 XWB airliner, compiling a terabyte per race collected from as many as 1,000 sensors fed into the Oracle Exadata supercomputer for instant analysis. Oracle will predict wind patterns (within half a knot accuracy) all the way down to 100-meter or even 50-meter grids on the racecourse. The sailors — a six man crew (down from 11 in 2013), need only glance at smart watches connected to a small onboard Linux server, to know what they need to do.

 

Speeds approaching 60 mph are possible in the Bermuda races—about 20% faster than in 2013. That would get us down to a two day Atlantic crossing.
 
 
More importantly, the days spent on crossing by sail put nothing into the atmosphere except the breath of the sailors. Today’s commercial passenger fleet is responsible for 3 to 5 percent of climate forcing, on its way to 15 percent according to some IPCC projections. Clearly it is going in the wrong direction.
 
 
From Wikipedia:
 
 
In October 2016 the UN agency International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) finalized an agreement among its 191 member nations to address the more than 458 Mt (2010) of carbon dioxide emitted annually by international passenger and cargo flights. The agreement will use an offsetting scheme called CORSIA (the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) under which forestry and other carbon-reducing activities are directly funded, amounting to about 2% of annual revenues for the sector. Rules against 'double counting' should ensure that existing forest protection efforts are not recycled. The scheme does not take effect until 2021 and will be voluntary until 2027, but many countries, including the US and China, have promised to begin at its 2020 inception date. Under the agreement, the global aviation emissions target is an 80% reduction by 2035 relative to 2020. NGO reaction to the deal was mixed.
 
 
The agreement has critics. It is not aligned with the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which set the objective of restricting global warming to 1.5 to 2°C. A late draft of the agreement would have required the air transport industry to assess its share of global carbon budgeting to meet that objective, but the text was removed in the agreed version. CORSIA will regulate only about 25 percent of aviation's international emissions, since it grandfathers all emissions below the 2020 level, allowing unregulated growth until then. Only 65 nations will participate in the initial voluntary period, not including significant emitters Russia, India and perhaps Brazil. The agreement does not cover domestic emissions, which are 40% of the global industry's overall emissions. One observer of the ICAO convention made this summary:
 
 
Airline claims that flying will now be green are a myth. Taking a plane is the fastest and cheapest way to fry the planet and this deal won't reduce demand for jet fuel one drop. Instead offsetting aims to cut emissions in other industries, although another critic called it "a timid step in the right direction."
 
 
But now imagine what happens when the ring wraiths start to arrive. On one side we have peak oil — for conventional liquid fuel production that happened in the US in 1969 and globally in 2005.

 

Dmitry Orlov explains:

[S]ustained and even slightly increased levels of per capita energy use have been enabled by constantly increasing debt that has temporarily compensated for the rising costs of energy production. The overall effect of this has been to depress both energy consumption and economic growth. Energy prices are low because that is all the consumers can afford and energy producers are forced to borrow to make up the difference between their production costs and their earnings. When economic growth stops and goes into reverse (what the French call décroissance) the debt burden becomes unsupportable, energy companies go out of business and per capita energy use drops precipitously. Thus, the phenomenon that has allowed per capita energy use to set some modest new records has produced an Olduvai plateau, which will be followed by an even steeper Olduvai cliff once this scheme, essentially one of attempting to borrow against the collateral of a nonexistent future, eventually fails. This moment is not far away: as I write this, the energy business has largely stopped being profitable, and there is a growing wave of energy companies entering bankruptcy.

***

Engineers like to work with physical quantities, and are loathe to admit that something that is essentially a game played with numbers on pieces of paper—which is what debt is—nevertheless can act as a physical motive force by forcing people to act. Its most dramatic physical manifestation is in depleting nonrenewable natural resources more rapidly and more fully. 

There are still pockets of oil fields that have not yet peaked, mostly in the Middle East, but on average, we are now into the decline phase. Ponzi land schemes support the popular fiction of a gold rush in “unconventional” liquids (fracked gas, shale oil, and the like). Prices at the pump are kept artificially low at this stage of the grift, as bigger fools are drawn into ever-more-risky real estate plays in the fracking patch, offshore, in the Arctic, and to the ends of the Earth, but sooner or later the real costs of these expensive, low-octane plays will bubble to the surface.
 
 
Petroleum explorer Colin Campbell many years ago compared our current moment in geological history to arriving at the tavern after final call and being so thirsty you take out your pocket knife and cut up the carpet to squeeze out any last drops of spilled beer (and whatever else might be there).
 
There are occasional headlines that some new discovery is a game changer, but those pieces of news never look at the data. Discoveries worldwide peaked decades ago and have not kept pace with extraction for many years. The situation is especially acute in post-peak producer nations like Venezuela and Mexico, the new normal for petrodollar addicts — destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. Any flare-up in tension in the Persian Gulf or other oil region can suddenly squeeze supplies with serious, world-shaking effects.
 
 
As Jan Lundberg of Sail Transport Network is fond of saying, “sailboats will have no fuel supply problem.” Airplanes are another story.

 

Virgin Atlantic Airways flew a Boeing 747 from London Heathrow Airport to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport on 24 February 2008, with one engine burning a combination of coconut oil and babassu oil. Greenpeace's chief scientist Doug Parr said that the flight was "high-altitude greenwash" and that producing organic oils to make biofuel could lead to deforestation and a large increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Also, the majority of the world's aircraft are not large jetliners but smaller piston aircraft, and with major modifications many are capable of using ethanol as a fuel. Another consideration is the vast amount of land that would be necessary to provide the biomass feedstock needed to support the needs of aviation, both civil and military.

 

Climate change may have more surprises. The second ring wraith can be glimpsed when they spill your drink between you and the serving cart, thanks to unexpected turbulence. A report published in Nature Climate Change by Paul Williams, a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Science stated: 
 
 
"air turbulence does more than just interrupt the service of in-flight drinks. It injures hundreds of passengers and aircrew every year – sometimes fatally. It also causes delays and damage to planes."
 
 
Increasing atmospheric instability is one of the hallmarks of global climate change. 
 
 
The third ring wraith brings with it the threat to aviation posed by errant cyber-viruses loosed by incautious government and corporate handlers. We were warned by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on March 9 after he was informed by the hacker community that sloppy spycraft in the cyberwar arena has set in motion open source viruses capable of taking down major infrastructure, anywhere. As of the date of that press conference, 22,000 ISPs in the US had been infected with a backdoor opened by NSA/CIA. 
 
On May 12, that backdoor was exploited by a malware attack beginning with the British National Health System and the German Rail System, and eventually reaching more than 150 countries. “What happened with the Shadow Brokers in this case is equivalent to a nuclear bomb in cyberspace,” said Zohar Pinhasi, a former cybersecurity intelligence officer for the Israeli military, now the chief executive of MonsterCloud, which helps mitigate ransomware attacks. “This is what happens when you give a tiny little criminal a weapon of mass destruction. This will only go bigger. It’s only the tip of the iceberg.”
 
 
“The Central Intelligence Agency lost control of its entire cyberweapons arsenal,” Assange said.  “This is an historic act of devastating incompetence to have created such an arsenal and stored it all in one place and not secured it.” 

 

 

Brad Smith, Microsoft president, asked what would happen if the United States military lost control of “some of its Tomahawk missiles” and discovered that a criminal group was using them to threaten some country unless ransom was paid. But why use missiles when you can take control of commercial airplanes, just like in Die Hard 2?

 

 

 
 
Given the possibility that the air control tower managing your landing might suffer a “blue screen” attack as you make your descent, wouldn’t you rather be sailing?
 
 
“Navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse.” (To sail is necessary, to live is not).  — Pompey

 

This week we have been resuming our talks with the Commonwealth of Nations to devise a strategy and timeline for reversing climate change using the permaculture tool kit. A key factor in the race to scale will be climate finance, and with that in mind we have bought to London a discussion of our concept for a ReGen Fund to issue “Cool Bonds” — lending instruments backed by carbon removal. Some of the projects we’ve discussed in previous posts — the Maya Mountain Research Farm in Belize, Ecosystem Restoration Camps, the Sunshine Ecovillage Network in China, Cool Labs in México and the Dominican Republic, and others — are prime candidates for putting that money to work. But there is another new piece on our chessboard.

 

Over the past few weeks we have been working with a ship’s architect on the concept for a mobile educational platform we are calling “Noah’s Ark.” The idea is for a research vessel not unlike Jacques Cousteau’s famous Calypso, that could move between moorings in places like New York, Miami and London and bring aboard researchers, activists, students, investors and others to meet with our change agents whom we are now calling Ambassadors. It would be a mobile networking hub, replete with television studio and conference hall.

 

To introduce our Cool Bond/ReGen Fund and Noah’s Ark, we joined with  Cloudburst Foundation and Project Noah to produce a short video.

 

This post is part of an ongoing serial we’re calling The Power Zone Manifesto. It is a series of building blocks that describe our existential climate dilemma and the only possible way to escape it. We post to The Great Change and Medium on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page. We offer ecovillage apprenticeships, including Cool Lab trainings, this year at The Farm in Tennessee April through July and will be teaching a full permaculture course in Ireland in August. We will be on speaking tours in Brazil, Germany, India and China in late 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Oilslick to Tyranny

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Published on the ExtraNewsFeed on June 5, 2017

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A prosperous society is an orderly society.

People with full bellies, stable homes and secure employment do not allow themselves to be involved in civil disorder. Unfortunately we are living on borrowed money in a bankrupt society. When our debts catch up with us, society will collapse, violent disorder will ensue and martial law will be inevitable. Pre-oil, despotic rule was the norm and democracies did not exist; we are going to return to that era.

The hallmark of the tyrant is already being stamped on the nation for anyone willing to recognise it. Suppression of truth is already in hand, information on climate change has been removed from government websites. It is the preparation for your future governance. No names are given here, because no-one will recognise the opportunist until he makes his grab for ultimate power. It will not be who you expect it to be.

forget Wall St., this is what world bankruptcy looks like:

 
 

 

 

 

 

Oil is our prime source of energy, ‘alternatives’ cannot power our industrial infrastructure.

Any business that continually burns through its assets at ten times the rate of replacement can be said to be bankrupt; that describes the global economy. Fossil fuels are the only asset we have, because everything else is a derivative of coal oil and gas inputs. Without heat, nothing can be manufactured. We elect politicians to lie on our behalf, because we want to be told that our resources and growth are infinite. In return for our votes, they are happy to do this. Everyone is complicit in the grand deceit, to accept the truth would destroy the existence of all of us.

So to perpetuate that lie there is a collective insistence that the global economy must continue to function to a very simple (but ultimately nonsensical) formula:

the more fuel we burn, the greater our gross domestic product. The faster we burn it, the higher our percentage growth.

Our machines and the (finite) fuels that move them now form the sinews that hold all nations together. They feed us, provide heat, light and transport, and with equal importance, stabilise international democracies and political systems.

No matter how complex or mundane your current job, whether garbage collector or brain surgeon, someone, somewhere is producing sufficient surplus energy to support it.

Prosperity is not an infinite right

Collective prosperity at the global level depends on cheap surplus fossil fuel energy. For 2 centuries we have been able to use those fossil fuels as collateral for future debt, to build ever bigger machines to extract elemental resources from the earth. This has been our great burning, because extracted materials of themselves are of no use to us unless we use heat to process them into desirable commodities.

That excess heat is altering our climate beyond human tolerance.

But heat provides our industrial growth economy: fuels must be consumed to sustain it and provide continued employment to make things that are ultimately thrown away in order to consume more to enable our debts to be continually carried forward. Our system of rolling debt depends on increasing energy input ad infinitum. So the one who asserts that climate change is a hoax gets voted into office, granting permission to burn our planet forever.

Without economic stability, democracy cannot survive.

Fuel resources have been a once-only gift of nature, and there are no viable substitutes. When they are no longer freely available, the effects will be catastrophic and force the events outlined here because the availability of surplus energy directly underpins our economic system. Without surplus energy you cannot have a modern democratic society. Be under no illusions, on current trends the events outlined here are certain. Only timing is in question by a few years either way.

Our global bank balance in oil has been falling for 70 years.

We are living on legacy oil. Oilwells cannot be refilled by votes, prayers or money.

We have created an industrial economy that is entirely predicated on a single factor: converting explosive force into rotary motion. Those six words separate us from the economics of the horsedrawn cart, windmill and sailing ship. They also separate us from the disease and deprivation that was the lot of our forebears only a century or two ago. Only fossil fuels can supply that explosive force at the rate we need.

The global industrial economy is now an interlocked progressive whole. It will not allow isolationism to function, neither will it allow a return to a previous era and downsized economic environment. We demand more, you have heard the aspiring tyrant’s words that promise more.

Political promises evaporate when there is insufficient energy to support them.

The notion of “Saudi America” is reassuring, but the facts are not.

Despite the rhetoric and posturing, reality cannot be ignored: the USA produces around 9 Million barrels of oil a day, but uses 0ver 19MBd. (2016). This imbalance is not going to change, despite collective belief to the contrary.

Price fluctuations and the ebb and flow of gluts should be ignored. If the cost of oil rises to a level that sustains the producers, users can’t afford to buy it; if it falls, oil producers can’t afford to extract it. This is the economic vice that is inexorably crushing the global industrial system as oil supplies decline.

Real wages fall in lockstep with oil depletion.

As surplus energy falls away, so does real income. We have substituted debt for income and allowed that debt to grow to mask the reality of our situation. We are stealing from our own future and from generations unborn to stay solvent. It might be called intergenerational larceny. When our great grandchildren arrive they will find nothing left for them to burn.

We are already in the phase of expending too much energy to get energy, which is why real income has been static for 30 years. We live in an energy economy, not a money economy. Wages are paid from energy surpluses, not printing presses, and that surplus has been gradually reducing.

The mirage of infinity.

The killer factor is Energy Return on Energy Invested, EROEI. Over the last 150 years civilisation has been built based on coal that returned an EROEI of 50:1, and oil that returned 100:1. Those ratios of return provided the cheap surplus energy that created our industrial infrastructure, and led to the expectation of infinite affluence.

We cannot maintain our current lifestyle using expensive fuels which give a return ratio of only 20:1 (and falling), which is what the best oilwells deliver.

Around 14:1 our society might hold together in a rudimentary sense if consumption could be balanced at that level, but 80 million new people arrive on the planet each year. They demand to be housed clothed and fed, spreading available resources even thinner. The mothers of the next 2 billion people are alive now. They will reproduce as a matter of personal survival, taking global population beyond 9 billion by mid century, guaranteeing our fall off the ‘energy cliff’.

The Energy Cliff:

There are numerous interpretations of the ‘energy cliff’, offering different return ratios that will supposedly allow our industrial society to function. 14:1, 12:1 even 8:1. The exact figure is irrelevant, right now we are entering the ‘elbow curve’ of the cliff, pinning our energy hopes on PV, wind, nuclear and tarsands; the ultimate downturn is inescapable. Wind and solar farms cannot supply sufficient concentrated energy to replace oil.

We are 7.5 billion people on a planet that, pre-oil, supported between 1 and 2 billion. By any reckoning, 5 billion people do not have a future, let alone 2 billion more due over the next 30 years.

We must burn fuel to maintain what we have, but the act of burning destroys what we have. This is contrary to human instinct, so the only recourse will be armed conflict to take what others have. All wars are about survival and acquisition of resources. Conflict will drain what little energy we have left and finally exhaust any survivors.

When we reach the point of having only shale or tar sand oil or wind turbines returning 5:1, there will not be enough surplus energy in our industrial systems to provide the economic momentum we need, and maintain the necessary machinery to power the system.

When our wheels stop turning, we stop eating. Our situation is as brutally simple as that. Electric vehicles cannot function outside a hydrocarbon based infrastructure, and no transportation can exist beyond the extent of its purpose. A collapsed economy removes any such purpose. Battery power will not deliver fresh water and remove your wastes, and there isn’t going to be a bucolic utopia where we all become rural gardeners. We don’t know how, there isn’t enough room and probably not enough time. Hungry people will not allow a second harvest.

But the demand for answers will persist, a search for those responsible for our misfortunes, and insistence that our lives are restored to the ‘normality’ of previous times. Already the finger pointing rhetoric of the despot is being cheered on a wave of ignorance and bigotry: lock up opponents and dissenters, suppress the media, remove the unwanted, ignore the laws.

When that (and more) is done, all will be well. They are words from recent history, overlaid on our own time. We thought fascism was impossible in civilised nations; as long as prosperity held for all, that was true. As prosperity fails, it is stirring again, with an appetite easily fed but never sated.

Secession

As energy supplies deplete, the industrial economy will enter its terminal phase, still under collective denial. But no nation can hold together without the fuel sources that created it. Secession will become inevitable, into five, six, seven or more regions in the USA, along racial, religious, political and geographic lines. The faultlines are already there, with no energy base there will be nothing to stop ultimate breakup. Other conglomerations of states and provinces will also disintegrate. The EU, Russia, China, Africa will react and deny, but the end result will be the same: Energy depletion = social collapse.

As civil unrest takes hold, governments will act in the only way they know how: violent suppression to restore order. This will mean military intervention and imposition of martial law as civil breakdown becomes widespread.

At that point your elected leader will assume the role of dictator and suspend the constitution. Once established, godly certainties among those around him will cloak this in righteousness and subvert it into a theocracy of the worst kind. That will make it easier to identify the heathen and justify any form of retribution. It will be fascism cloaked in holy orders. It will not be the first time: Hitler’s army had “Gott Mitt Uns” stamped on their belt buckles.

Those who support him will become part of the new order. Those who do not will be dismissed from office, either voluntarily or by force. Police and military will fall in behind whoever pays their wages, and enforce the new regime. Totalitarian states have shown that there is never a shortage of willing hands to perform unpleasant tasks. They are always ready and waiting to be recruited.

The inevitability of regional secession will inflame regional differences, and spark civil war(s). It will be the time of petty states and tyrannies, each regime desperate to resist the decline into a different lifestyle, certain that the mess can be ‘fixed’, and only ‘they’ can fix it by enforcement of ideology. Yet without the power of fossil fuels there will be an inexorable regression to the brutalities of medievalism, with power resting only in the command of muscle.

Eventually they will be forced to accept each other’s existence, for no better reason than there will be insufficient means to do anything about it.

Welcome to the (dis) United States of America.

So what of the years to come? The dictator’s power will grow for a time, and make life unpleasant for millions, but ultimately his Reich will extend only to the door of his bunker. No doubt he will remain in his seat of imagined power for as long as possible, issuing incoherent commands that cannot be fulfilled because there will be insufficient energy to do so, just as his predecessor discovered 75 years ago.

Dimming Bulb 3: Collapse has ARRIVED!

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Published on The Doomstead Diner June 4, 2017

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Read also: The Dimming Bulb, The Dimming Bulb 2

Due to my High & Mighty position as a Global Collapse Pundit, I am often asked the question of when precisely will Collapse arrive?  The people who ask me this question all come from 1st World countries.  They are also all reasonably well off with a computer, an internet connection, running water and enough food to eat.  While a few of us are relatively poor retirees, even none of us wants for the basics as of yet.  The Diner doesn't get many readers from the underclass even here in Amerika, much less from the Global Underclass in places like Nigeria, Somalia,Sudan and Yemen.

The fact is, that for more than half the world population, Collapse is in full swing and well underway.  Two key bellweathers of where collapse is now are the areas of Electricity and Food.

http://dieoff.org/synopsis_files/image002.gif In his seminal 1996 paper The Olduvai Theory: Sliding Towards a Post-Industrial Stone Age, Richard Duncan mapped out the trajectory of where we would be as the years passed and fossil fuels became more difficult and expensive to mine up.  Besides powering all our cars and trucks for Happy Motoring and Just-in-Time delivery, the main thing our 1st World lifestyle requires is Electricity, and lots of it on demand, 24/7.  Although electricity can be produced in some "renewable" ways that don't depend on a lot of fossil fuel energy at least directly, most of the global supply of electric power comes from Coal and Natural Gas.  Of the two, NG is slightly cleaner, but either way when you burn them, CO2 goes up in the atmosphere.  This of course is a problem climatically, but you have an even bigger problem socially and politically if you aren't burning them.  Everything in the society as it has been constructed since Edison invented the Light Bulb in 1879 has depended on electricity to function.

Now, if all the toys like lights, refrigerators big screen TVs etc had been kept to just a few small countries and the rest of the world lived a simple subsistence farming lifestyle, the lucky few with the toys probably could have kept the juice flowing a lot longer.  Unfortunately however, once exposed to all the great toys, EVERYBODY wanted them.  The industrialists also salivated over all the profit to be made selling the toys to everyone.  So, everybody everywhere needed a grid, which the industrialists and their associated banksters extended Credit for "backward" Nation-States all over the globe to build their own power plants and string their own wires.  Now everybody in the country could have a lightbulb to see by and a fridge to keep the food cold.  More than that, the electricity also went to power water pumping stations and sewage treatment plants, so you could pack the Big Shities with even more people who use still more electricity.

This went on all over the globe, until today there isn't a major city or even a medium size town anywhere on the globe that isn't wired for electricity, although many places that are now no longer have enough money to keep the juice flowing.

Where is the electricity going off first?  Obviously, in the poorest and most war torn countries across the Middle East and Africa.  These days, from Egypt to Tunisia, if they get 2 hours of electricity a day they are doing good.

The Lights Are Going Out in the Middle East


The world’s most volatile region faces a challenge that doesn’t involve guns, militias, or bloodshed, yet is also destroying societies. Public fury over rampant outages has sparked protests. In January, in one of the largest demonstrations since Hamas took control in Gaza a decade ago, ten thousand Palestinians, angered by the lack of power during a frigid winter, hurled stones and set tires ablaze outside the electricity company. Iraq has the world’s fifth-largest oil reserves, but, during the past two years, repeated anti-government demonstrations have erupted over blackouts that are rarely announced in advance and are of indefinite duration. It’s one issue that unites fractious Sunnis in the west, Shiites in the arid south, and Kurds in the mountainous north. In the midst of Yemen’s complex war, hundreds dared to take to the streets of Aden in February to protest prolonged outages. In Syria, supporters of President Bashar al-Assad in Latakia, the dynasty’s main stronghold, who had remained loyal for six years of civil war, drew the line over electricity. They staged a protest in January over a cutback to only one hour of power a day.

Over the past eight months, I’ve been struck by people talking less about the prospects of peace, the dangers of ISIS, or President Trump’s intentions in the Middle East than their own exhaustion from the trials of daily life. Families recounted groggily getting up in the middle of the night when power abruptly comes on in order to do laundry, carry out business transactions on computers, charge phones, or just bathe and flush toilets, until electricity, just as unpredictably, goes off again. Some families have stopped taking elevators; their terrified children have been stuck too often between floors. Students complained of freezing classrooms in winter, trying to study or write papers without computers, and reading at night by candlelight. The challenges will soon increase with the demands for power—and air-conditioning—surge, as summer temperatures reach a hundred and twenty-five degrees.

The reasons for these outages vary. With the exception of the Gulf states, infrastructure is old or inadequate in many of the twenty-three Arab countries. The region’s disparate wars, past and present, have damaged or destroyed electrical grids. Some governments, even in Iraq, can’t afford the cost of fuelling plants around the clock. Epic corruption has compounded physical challenges. Politicians have delayed or prevented solutions if their cronies don’t get contracts to fuel, maintain, or build power plants.


Now you'll note that at the end of the third paragraph there, the journalist implies that a big part of the problem is "political corruption", but it's really not.  It's simply a lack of money.  These countries at one time were all Oil Exporters, although not on the scale of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.  As their own supplies of oil have depleted they have become oil importers, except they neither have a sufficient mercantilist model running to bring in enough FOREX to buy oil, and they can't get credit from the international banking cartel to keep buying.  3rd World countries are being cut off from the Credit Lifeline, unlike the core countries at the center of credit creation like Britain, Germany and the FSoA.  All these 1st World countries are in just as bad fiscal deficit as the MENA countries, the only difference is they still can get credit and run the deficits even higher.  This works until it doesn't anymore.

Beyond the credit issue is the War problem.  As the countries run out of money, more people become unemployed, biznesses go bankrupt, tax collection drops off the map and goobermint employees are laid off too.  It's the classic deflationary spiral which printing more money doesn't solve, since the notes become increasingly worthless.  For them to be worth anything in FOREX, somebody has to buy their Goobermint Bonds, and that is precisely what is not happening.  So as the society becomes increasingly impoverished, it descends into internecine warfare between factions trying to hold on to or increase their share of the ever shrinking pie.

The warfare ongoing in these nations has knock on effects for the 1st World Nations still trying to extract energy from some of these places.  To keep the oil flowing outward, they have to run very expensive military operations to at least maintain enough order that oil pipelines aren't sabotaged on a daily basis.  The cost of the operations keeps going up, but the amount of money they can charge the customers for the oil inside their own countries does not keep going up.  Right now they have hit a ceiling around $50/bbl for what they can charge for the oil, and for the most part this is not a profit making price.  So all the corporations involved in Exploration & Production these days are surviving on further extensions of credit from the TBTF banks while at the same time cutting back on their capital expenditures.  This also is a paradigm that can't last.

The other major problem now surfacing is the Food Distribution problem, and again this is hitting the African countries first and hardest.  It's a combination problem of climate change, population overshoot and the warfare which results from those issues.

Currently, the UN lists 4 countries in extreme danger of famine in the coming year, Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.  They estimate currently there are 20M people at extreme risk, and I would bet the numbers are a good deal higher than that.
 

 

somalia-famine.jpg World faces four famines as Trump administration plans to slash foreign aid budget

'Biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II' about to engulf 20 million people, UN says, as governments only donate 10 per cent of funds needed for essential aid

 

 

 

 

 

The world is facing a humanitarian crisis bigger than any in living memory, the UN has said, as four countries teeter on the brink of famine.

Twenty million people are at risk of starvation and facing water shortages in Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen, while parts of South Sudan are already officially suffering from famine.  

While the UN said in February that at least $4.4 billion (£3.5 bn) was needed by the end of March to avert a hunger catastrophe across the four nations, the end of the month is fast approaching, and only 10 per cent of the necessary funds have been received from donor governments so far.


It doesn't look too promising that the UN will be able to raise the $4B they say is necessary to feed all those hungry mouths, and none of the 1st World countries is too predisposed to handing out food aid when they all currently have problems with their own social welfare programs for food distribution.  Here in the FSoA, there are currently around 45M people on SNAP Cards at a current cost around $71B.  The Repugnants in charge of CONgress will no doubt try to cut this number in order to better fund the Pentagon, but they are not likely to send more money to Somalia.

Far as compassion for all the starving people globally goes in the general population, this also appears to be decreasing, although I don't have statistics to back that up. It is just a general sense I get as I read the collapse blogosphere, in the commentariats generally.  The general attitude is, "It's their own fault for being so stupid and not using Birth Control.  If they were never born, they wouldn't have to die of starvation."  Since they are mostly Black Africans currently starving, this is another reason a large swath of the white population here doesn't care much about the problem.

There are all sorts of social and economic reasons why this problem spiralled out of control, having mainly to do with the production of cheap food through Industrial Agriculture and Endless Greed centered on the idea of Endless Growth, which is not possible on a Finite Planet.

More places on Earth were wired up with each passing year, and more people were bred up with each passing year.  The dependency on fossil fuels to keep this supposedly endless cycle of growth going became ever greater each year, all while this resource was being depleted more each year.  Eventually, an inflexion point had to be hit, and we have hit it.

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-aWWVsOhX9oA/TrxXROe6CEI/AAAAAAAAAN8/fXiBu_jeZvg/s1600/unicorn.jpgThe thing is, for the relatively comfortable readers of the Doomstead Diner in the 1st World BAU seems to be continuing onward, even if you are a bit poorer than you were last year. 24/7 electricity is still available from the grid with only occassional interruptions.  Gas is still available at the pump, and if you are employed you probably can afford to buy it, although you need to be more careful about how much you drive around unless you are a 1%er.  The Rich are still lining up to buy EVs from Elon Musk, even though having a grid to support all electric transportation is out of the question.  The current grid can't be maintained, and upgrading to handle that much throughput would take much thicker cables all across the network.  People carry on though as though this will all go on forever and Scientists & Engineers will solve all the problems with some magical new device.  IOW, they believe in Skittle Shitting Unicorns.

That's not going to happen though, so you're back to the question of how long will it take your neighborhood in the UK or Germany or the FSoA to look like say Egypt does today?  Well, if you go back in time a decade to Egypt in 2007, things were still looking pretty Peachy over there, especially in Tourist Traps like Cairo.  Terrorism wasn't too huge a problem and Da Goobermint of Hoser Mubarak appeared stable.  A decade later today, Egypt is basically a failed state only doing marginally better than places like Somalia and Sudan.  The only reason they're doing as well as they are is because they are in an important strategic location on the Suez Canal and as such get support from the FSoA military.

So a good WAG here for how long it will take for the Collapse Level in 1st World countries to reach the level Egypt is at today is about a decade.  It could be a little shorter, it could be longer.  By then of course, Egypt will be in even WORSE shape, and who might still be left alive in Somalia is an open question.  Highly unlikely to be very many people though.  Over the next decade, the famines will spread and people will die, in numbers far exceeding the 20M to occur over the next year.  After a while, it's unlikely we will get much newz about this, and people here won't care much about what they do hear.  They will have their own problems.

Book Review | When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on April 30th, 2017

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I left off last week's post – "Money Doesn't Grow on Trees, Industrial-Scale Renewable Energy Does" – by mentioning the existence of a rather excellent resource. By that I didn't mean an energy resource, but rather a book – a book that nonetheless gives a rather fine breakdown of our various energy resources and their applicability to a world in the midst of peak oil and declining EROEI levels. That book would be When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation by systems analyst Alice J. Friedemann.

But before I get to the book, it's worth reiterating from said previous post the notion that just as the coal lobbies, nuclear lobbies, and all the other "dirty" fuel lobbies are wont to exaggerate and obfuscate the specifics of their energy resources, so too are lobbyists for the large-scale application of "renewable" energy sources more than willing to exaggerate, obfuscate, and even fudge the facts when it comes to conveying the benefits and advantages of their energy resources. And as I also pointed out, the latter is just as often the work of PR agencies and other marketeers, the goal effectively being anything but conveying a clear understanding of our current energy situation. Friedemann perfectly explains why this is (italics mine):

In business, …analysis is essential to prevent bankruptcy. Yet when scientists find oil, coal, and natural gas production likely to peak within decades, rather than centuries, or that ethanol, solar photovoltaic, tar sands, oil shale, and other alternative energy resources have a low or even negative energy return on the energy invested, they are ignored and called pessimists, no matter how solid their findings. For every one of their peer-reviewed papers, there are thousands of positive press releases with breakthroughs that never pan out, and economists promising perpetual growth and energy independence. Optimism is more important than facts. And, it's essential for attracting investors.

So don't let a title like When Trucks Stop Running give you the impression that Friedemann's book is simply one about the energetic options for the trucking industry, since what it actually does is use trucks as an interesting starting point for how to understand the viability of the various energy options available to our declining industrial way of life.

While it was coal-powered trains and railroads that, as described, allowed for extensive inland settlements distant from shipping ports, it was cheap oil supplies after WWII that allowed for the even more distant and scattered suburbs – "truck towns" – thanks to the proliferation of diesel-powered trucks (ten million trucks in the U.S. alone), the millions upon millions of miles of road (4.1 million miles in the U.S. alone), and the just-in-time transport enabled by it all. With our industrial civilization now largely built around the continued operation of these trucks, Friedemann then explains that if our current way of life is to be maintained – and since supplies of various fossil fuels are finite and have begun, or are to soon begin, peaking – this suggests a turn towards renewables to power those trucks. But as is pointed out, renewables themselves are just as dependent on trucks as the rest of our modern, industrial civilization is: trucks are needed to transport massive wind turbine blades and the rest of their thousands of components (more than 8,000 in all), they're necessary to transport the cement needed for windmill sites, they're necessary to build and maintain the very roads they themselves travel on, and so forth.


You don't see many Amish men and their horses hauling those things around on dirt roads

The underlying question then becomes: How can the trucking system be adapted to run on alternative fuels in order to remain viable in a world of depleting fossil fuels of which said trucks rely on? Because if the trucking system can't be adapted, then there wouldn't be much reason for building out the large-scale windmill, solar photovoltaic, and all the other fandangle electricity generating ideas being hyped.

For starters, diesel-engine trucks can last decades, this implying a decades-long replacement time due to the billions of dollars already sunk in said trucks of which isn't going to be thrown away. Simultaneously, a chicken-and-egg problem exists of an aversion to buying alternative-fuel trucks due to the non-existence of fuelling stations, buttressed by an aversion to the building of alternative-fuel stations since the alternative-fuel trucks don't exist either.

What is ideally called for then is a "drop in fuel" – a fuel that utilizes the existing infrastructure and so works with the engines and pipeline systems we've currently got. But as Friedemann explains, ethanol and biodiesel can't travel in oil pipelines for a variety of reasons, one of these being the resultant corrosion of said pipelines. (Instead, ethanol will continue to travel by trains and trucks powered by twice-as-energy-dense… diesel.) Furthermore, hydrogen isn't a drop in fuel for the simple reason that it can't be used in existing engines, never mind that it would ruin existing oil and/or natural gas pipelines anyway. And although natural gas already has pipelines to be transported through, it can't be used in existing engines either.

In short, a drop in fuel doesn't exist.

That being the case, Friedemann proceeds to break down the three most notable alternatives to diesel-powered, internal-combustion-engine trucks: battery-powered trucks, hydrogen-powered trucks, and trucks running on a catenary system (an overhead wire system as used by trolleys/trams/streetcars).

Battery-powered trucks:

While it might be possible to get a battery-powered remote-control Tonka truck with a cute little Tesla sticker on it, the battery-powered trucks that matter are the massive ones that can haul 30 tons of cargo or pour cement, generally weighing more than 40 times your average car. Problem is, the amount of batteries needed to allow a truck like this to travel an appreciable distance results in a significant dent in available cargo space, which is then made even worse by the decreased amount of payload a truck can carry due to the sheer weight of the batteries themselves. This doesn't make for economical transport, and nor does it help that the advancement of batteries is bumping up against physical and thermodynamic limits (as Friedemann has explained on her blog, Energy Skeptic). But supposing you've got the money to burn (and/or have made some key donations to people in the right government departments and/or positions) and wack it all together anyway, the inherent limitations to the energy density of batteries not only dictates the need for more frequent stops, but for prolonged stops of several hours in order to recharge the batteries. As if that weren't bad enough, battery-powered trucks have many performance issues, such as mediocre acceleration and problems driving up steep hills, shoddy performance in subzero temperatures, declining range as batteries degrade, and simply cost much more than a conventional diesel truck. As a result, the battery-powered trucks currently in use are heavily subsidized by governments and exist in the form of smaller-sized hybrids used for garbage pickup since this allows them to utilize all the stopping and starting to recharge their batteries. In other words, they aren't even the type of truck that hauls large loads and travels for long distances without stopping.


I stand corrected. Even Tonkas use diesel – turbo-diesel! (photo courtesy of Dana Martin)

Hydrogen-powered trucks:

As should go without saying, hydrogen isn't a fossil fuel we mine from the ground but rather an intermediary of sorts that other energies (such as from wind, solar, etc.) can be transferred over to for storage or other means of usage. In other words, hydrogen isn't an energy source but more like a battery, and since it takes an enormous amount of energy to split hydrogen from water (water which must be very pure), 96% of H2 is derived from natural gas. In effect, hydrogen has an abysmal efficiency rate due to the multiple stages where energy is lost – liquification, hydrogen re-forming, fuel cell efficiency, etc. On top of all this, hydrogen-powered trucks are so horrible at acceleration that they actually require a secondary propulsion system – batteries – which results in a single truck costing more than a million dollars each – in comparison to the $100,000 or so for a diesel truck.

Catenary system:

Problems quickly appear here due to the frequency of trucks travelling on the system – once every few seconds versus trolley/tram/streetcar systems in which passenger vehicles generally come once every ten minutes or so. This puts a significant strain on the system due to the enormously large loads of electricity that must pass through the overhead wires. Moreover, the tens of thousands of trucks that would travel on a single system each weigh twice as much as one of the few hundred trolleys/trams/streetcars on an urban transit system and so require much more energy to move. Then there's the massive overhead costs to install such a system over tens of thousands of kilometres (at several million dollars per kilometre) and the abhorrent amounts of electricity that tens of thousands of trucks would necessitate, compounded by the fact that catenary enabled trucks also require an added battery or fuel cell system for those times when trucks need to drive off the catenary system towards a delivery/pick-up point (or simply overtake another vehicle), or for those times that the power goes out and one doesn't want the highways to turn into McParking lots.

And that's all supposing that there's even enough energy in the first place to charge those batteries, or to be a feedstock for the hydrogen fuel cells, or to power the overhead catenary system. Because while being a slim and easy-to-read 131-page book, When Trucks Stop Running also gives a barrel-by-barrel, kilowatt-by-kilowatt account of why none of our fossil fuel energy sources – not oil, not coal-to-liquids, not natural gas, not even any of their combination – are capable of maintaining the trucking system and thus our current industrial way of life. Likewise, the book also conveys why no amount or combination of renewable energies are enough to maintain a trucking system which is needed to maintain a… renewable energy system. And sorry, Friedemann also explains why energy storage systems are a crapshoot as well.

In effect, you aren't going to find much in When Trucks Stop Running to help sell your favourite brand of snake oil in order to prop up your Madison Avenue lifestyle. Otherwise, it's an excellent read.


Without fossil fuels, how will the trucking industry be able to move around all the
components necessary to maintain the trucking industry? (photo by jeshua.nace)

That all being so, Friedemann suggests in summation that rather than waste the fossil fuels we've got left on attempting to build out systems that won't have much of a shelf life, we'd be much better off using that fossil energy to convert away from industrial agriculture, to build passive solar houses and buildings, maintain and upgrade domestic waterway transportation infrastructure as well as other low-energy systems.

Regardless, no PR agency, or energy lobbyist, or charlatan is going to be content with letting Friedemann get away with the last word here. For as was mentioned in the passage of hers I quoted earlier:

[W]hen scientists find [uncomfortable facts], they are ignored and called pessimists, no matter how solid their findings. For every one of their peer-reviewed papers, there are thousands of positive press releases with breakthroughs that never pan out…

And you know what that means, right?

Elon Musk just announced the unveiling of the Tesla Semi truck!! And it's "Seriously next level"!!

Okay, okay, I don't mean to say that the latest MuskMobile will "never pan out", just that Concordes generally necessitate too much energy to make them viable without significant subsidies of one sort or another. And that isn't to say that there's anything inherently wrong with subsidies either, just that while Friedemann also points out that "it is energy, not money, that fuels society", it is also energy, not money, that fuels subsidies (money is after all a proxy for energy, as I've previously written).

In other words, using energy to subsidize energy probably isn't much of a viable long-term plan, but it can certainly score you the starring role as the latest messiah in this age of optimism being valued over facts.


Sorry there Elon, but it looks like even the big boys realize their Tonkas have no
choice but to use diesel – mighty diesel! (photo courtesy of Wallace Shackleton)

Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees, Industrial-Scale Renewable Energy Does

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on April 19th, 2017

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When you wish upon a star the Blue Fairy sends Tinker Bell, who plants a magic seed, which grows into a giant beanstalk, which leads you to the goose that lays golden eggs, which can buy you all the renewable energy you could ever want. The End.

Follow the headlines and you can hardly be blamed for thinking that we're on the cusp of a monumental renaissance, one that'll usher us into a renewable energy paradise and allow us to maintain our profligate first-world standard of living for… well, forever!

My favourite recent headline indicative of this supposed renaissance came via the website Ecowatch (by no means a lowly-ranked website), which proclaimed in one of its article's titles that "California Generates Enough Solar Power to Meet Half its Energy Needs".

Half!

Half?

Well kinda half – "haaaalf." For as the article's second paragraph states,

Recent data shows California coming through. The state briefly generated enough solar power to meet nearly half of the state's electricity needs, according to data from the largest grid operator in the state, California ISO.

Let's break down this paragraph and the title of the article from which it came from:

1) Perhaps the most troublesome thing about this paragraph that should stick out more than any other is the slipshod way in which the article morphs into stating that it's not half the state's "energy needs" that were met (as the title stated) but half the state's "electricity needs" (as the second paragraph stated). This makes a huge difference, seeing how electricity is only one aspect of our energy usage – which also includes liquid and gaseous energies burned in internal combustion engines, central heating systems, etc., amongst much else. In fact, since electricity generally accounts for roughly 17% of overall energy usage, this means that it wasn't 50% of all energy needs that were supplied but 50% of 17% – otherwise known as 8.5%.

2) Perhaps the second most troublesome aspect of the situation isn't the article's clarification that the energy-cum-electricity generated wasn't even half but "nearly half" (so we're talking less than 8.5% then), but the revelation that this level was met only "briefly". That is, the most ideal data from the most ideal time of the day was cherry-picked, then inexplicitly substituted in place for… I don't know, the title didn't say – the entire day, week, month, year? Fortunately the article did in fact say, and it turns out that it was for the single day of March the 3rd. Or at least part of that day, because if one looks at the supplied graph for the 24-hour 15-hour period, one can confirm that the sun didn't in fact shine in the early morning, and that it looks like the appreciable levels of solar energy were generated for roughly eight hours between 8am and 4pm – which means about a third of the day, and so reduces the 50%-cum-(less than)8.5% to less than 3%.


Data was omitted from the evening hours in hopes that it'll encourage the sun to be less shy and so come out to play at night?

3) Last of all, it's stated that the data came from "the largest grid operator in the state", which is later in the article stated to not include urban places like Los Angeles or Sacramento. So while the inner cities undoubtedly have much less energy being generated by grotesque blobs of photovoltaics than rural California, this doesn't necessarily change the energy generation percentages in the slightest. Nonetheless, the wording and situation does still nonetheless seem a little fishy, which in my book justifies decreasing the less than 3% figure by another third, meaning that California, the stated state that "Generates Enough Solar Power to Meet Half its Energy Needs", possibly produces less than 1% of its energy needs from solar. Or in others words, jack shit. (Or in other other words, Jack ain't climbin' no stinkin' beanstalk to grift geese that lay golden eggs.)

My back of the envelope guess apparently wasn't even very far off, because after I realized that I'd better do some Internet sleuthing before I made an ever bigger arse out of myself, five seconds of research resulted in me finding an article explaining that in 2015 California ISO generated 15,591,694 megawatt-hours of solar electricity, out of the state's 231,965,326 total – that being 6.7%, along with 5.9% from hydro and 5.3% from wind. Multiply that 6.7% by 17% and, as I apparently wasn't very far off, we find that in 2015 California ISO produced 1.139% of the state's total energy usage via solar generation.

If that dismal number wasn't bad enough already, it also turns out that California has nearly half the entire country's solar electricity generation capacity. Jack and Jill really ain't gettin' Jack shit at the top of that hill.

Since the Ecowatch article gives nowhere near the kind of (cobbled) clarification that I just gave and instead resorts to conveying even more obfuscation and unwarranted hype, it's probably safe to say that this article's title is actually much worse than mere clickbait. One reason being, the misleading information that permeates these articles provides ample fodder for fossil fuel-backers to denounce renewables as full of BS, thus giving renewables in toto a bad name and giving many people the wrong impression of their complete futility. Secondly, while the article can not only be faulted for having a misleading title, but an ignorant-to-the-issues reader might very well come away feeling reassured that "well, the article didn't lie in the long run because it did ultimately straighten things out". In effect, a reader can consign themselves to believing that while things aren't as good as the title would have lead them to believe (if they even bothered going beyond the title, and if they even noticed some of the incongruities I pointed out), nor are things as bad as "industrial civilization is screwed". But the thing is

On top of all that, articles like the one from Ecowatch are by no means anomalies since our various forms of media are rife with this kind of claptrap.

Denmark is of course the poster-child for renewable energy Shangri-La, one example of the kind of stuff that gets bandied about being that "In the fall of 2015 Denmark generated 140% of its electricity demand with wind power". Which to me sounds like the entire three months of the season called "fall". However, not only did this stated 140% occur on what was "an unusually windy day" (as opposed to an entire windy season called "fall"), but the measurement occurred at the precise moment of – wait for it – 3am in the morning! To throw insult to injury, and as quoted in a Guardian article shoddily titled "Wind Power Generates 140% of Denmark's Electricity Demand", a representative of the European Wind Energy Association actually had the gall to then say that "It shows that a world powered 100% by renewable energy is no fantasy". No, no more fantasy than if we set our clocks to a permanent state of 3am, all went outside to blow really hard, and as a result found our energy woes to be solved.

Nor is it any more fantasy than setting our clocks to 11am, our calendars to Sunday, and similarly finding ourselves blissfully energized. Because at 11am on Sunday, May the 8th of last year, "95% of German electricity demand was being met by renewable energy". (The inclusion of the word "demand", as was used in both quotes about Denmark and its wind energy, gives me the impression that all this energy wasn't actually consumed [and certainly not stored] in Germany and for whatever reason had to be offloaded out of the country, but we'll let that one slide for now.) As said proclamation then continued, "In one of the most advanced manufacturing countries on the planet – this is an amazing feat of engineering."

Really? Is that such a feat? Because as another article described the very situation, "This demand is seen as pretty low, mostly a result of warm temperatures, the summer break and the weekend, when most commercial operations remained closed." Phew, sanity prevails. Or… or does it? Because as the paragraph then continues, "But exactly at such points of time, it can be proven how renewables are edging closer to be capable of covering 100% of the demanded energy."

!?!? Are renewable energy industry shills actually trying to sell the idea that cherry-picked data is proof of viability!? Does stealing candy from babies really mean we can have all the candy we want!? Is everybody involved in the energy industry smoking crack!?


Like that guy who walked on water it's as if you could walk on energy

Thankfully not, because as another article clarifies the similar notion that Germany now produces half of its energy using solar (of which was repeated in Popular Mechanics and Rickard Dawkins' website, and which both errantly used the word "energy" instead of "electricity"), "Last year only 4.5% of Germany’s gross electricity generation came from solar panels, far short of 50%." As it then states,

Germany's solar output varies massively during the year, and these variations can be made clear by a simple comparison. Daily output of Germany's solar panels peaked last year on 21st of July, when panels produced 20.9% of daily electricity demand. In contrast, the worst day of the year was 18th January when solar panels produced just over 0.1% of Germany's electricity demand. This second statistic has, unsurprisingly, failed to elicit any headlines.

Phew – and without any caveats!

Anyway, it's hard to not get the impression that what the wind energy lobbies, the solar energy lobbies, and whatever other renewable energy lobbies partake in is the same hype, wishful thinking, and arguably outright lies that the coal energy lobbies, the nuclear energy lobbies, and all the rest of the "dirty" energy lobbies partake in.

On top of all that, similar to how money lenders will lend to both sides in a war and ultimately not really care which side wins since they'll be coming out on top either way, PR agencies, advertising agencies, and the rest of the Madison Avenue types cumulatively couldn't care less if it's the coal industry that comes out as winners, or the fracking industry that comes out as winners, or the renewable energy racket that comes out as winners, or if Tinker Bell comes out as the supreme winner. Because whichever way it ends up, their industry is coming out on top.

And while getting paid and maintaining cush salaries is of the utmost importance here rather than clear assessments, it's probably not too far off the mark to surmise that – as Eric Janzen did back in 2008 and John Michael Greer did more recently – what's being created is a renewable energy bubble, possibly contributing to, or even causing, the next stock market crash. (The race is on frackers!)

None of this is to say though that "renewable" energies are all for naught, just that their large-scale application isn't going to work any better than "dirty" energies will at maintaining industrial civilization in light of the onset of peak oil and plummeting EROEI levels.

In the meantime, weeding through all the BS and delivering a straight assessment regarding all these energy sources is of course a massive undertaking, so next week I'll take a look at an excellent resource that has done just that.

Why EROEI matters: the role of net energy in the survival of civilization

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on March 13, 2017

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Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

 

 

The image above was shown by Charlie Hall in a recent presentation that he gave in Princeton. It seems logic that the more net energy is available for a civilization, the more that civilization can do, say, build cathedrals, create art, explore space, and more. But what's needed, exactly, for a civilization to exist? Maybe very high values of the EROEI (energy return on energy invested) are not necessary.

A lively debate is ongoing on what should be the minimum energy return for energy invested (EROEI) in order to sustain a civilization. Clearly, one always wants the best returns for one's investments. And, of course, investing in something that provides a return smaller than one is a bad idea, to say the least. So, a civilization grows and prosper on the energy it receives. The question is whether the transition from fossil fuels to renewables could provide enough energy to keep civilization alive in a form not too different from the present one.

It is often said that the prosperity of our society is the result of the high EROEI of crude oil as it was in mid 20th century. Values as high as 100 are often cited, but these are probably widely off the mark. The data reported in a 2014 study by Dave Murphy indicate that the average EROEI of crude oil worldwide could have been around 35 in the past, declining to around 20 at present. Dale et al. estimate (2011) that the average EROEI of crude oil could have been, at most, around 45 in the 1960s Data for the US production indicate an EROEI around 20 in the 1950s; down to about 10 today.

We see that the EROEI of oil is not easy to estimate but we can say at least two things: 1) our civilization was built on an energy source with an EROEI around 30-40. 2) the EROEI of oil has been going down owing to the depletion of the most profitable (high EROEI) wells. Today, we may be producing crude oil at EROEIs between 10 and 20, and it keeps going down.

Let's move to renewables. Here, the debate often becomes dominated by emotional or political factors that seem to bring people to try to disparage renewables as much as possible. Some evidently wrong assessments claim EROEIs smaller than one for the most promising renewable technology, photovoltaics (PV). In other cases, the game consists in enlarging the boundaries of the calculation, adding costs not directly related to the exploitation of the resource. That's why we should compare what's comparable; that is, use the same rules for evaluating the EROEI of fossil fuels and that of renewable energy. If we do that, we find that, for instance, photovoltaics has an EROEI around 10. Wind energy does better than that, with an average EROEI around 20. Not bad, but surely not as large as crude oil in the good old days.

Now, for the mother of all questions: on the basis of these data, can renewables replace the increasing energy expensive oil and sustain civilization? Here, we venture into a difficult field: what do we mean exactly as a "civilization"? What kind of civilization could a renewable-powered society support? Could it build cathedrals? Would it include driving SUVs? How about plane trips to Hawaii?

Here, some people are very pessimistic, and not just about SUVs and plane trips. On the basis of the fact that the EROEI of renewables is smaller than that of crude oil, considering also the expense of the infrastructure needed to adapt our society to the kind of energy produced by renewables, they conclude that "renewables cannot sustain a civilization that can sustain renewables." (a little like Groucho Marx's joke "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.").

Maybe, but I beg to differ. Let me explain with an example. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the energy source that powers society has an EROEI equal to 2. You would think that this is an abysmally low value and that it couldn't support anything more than a society of mountain shepherds, and probably not even that. But think about what an EROEI of 2 implies: for each plant in operation there must be a second one of the same size that only produces the energy that will be used to replace both plants after that they have gone through their lifetime. And the energy produced by the first plant comes for free. Now, consider a power source that has an EROEI= infinity; then you don't need the second plant. So, the difference is only a factor of two in the investments necessary to maintain the energy producing system forever.

It is like that: the EROEI is a strongly non-linear measurement. You can see that in the well-known diagram below (here in a simplified version, some people trace a line in the graph indicating the "minimum EROEI needed for civilization", which I think is unjustified)):

 

 

You see that oil, wind, coal, and solar are all in the same range. As long as the EROEI is higher than about 5-10, the energy return is reasonably good, at most you have to re-invest 10% of the production to keep the system going, which is pretty reasonable. It is only when the EROEI it becomes smaller than ca. 2 that things become awkward. So, it doesn't seem to be so difficult to support a complex civilization with the technologies we have. Maybe trips to Hawaii and SUVs wouldn't be included in a PV-based society (note the low EROEI of biofuels) but about art, science, health care, and the like, well, what's the problem?

There is a problem, though. And it has to do with growth. Let me go back to the example I made before, that of a hypothetical energy technology that has an EROEI = 2. If this energy return is calculated over a lifetime of 25 years, it means that the best that can be done in terms of growth is to double the number of plants over 25 years, a yearly growth rate of less than 3%. And that in the hypothesis that all the energy produced by the plants would go to make more plants which, of course, makes no sense. If we assume that, say, 10% of the energy produced is invested in new plants then, with EROEI=2, growth can be at most of the order of 0.3%. Even with an EROEI =10, we can't reasonably expect renewables to push their own growth at rates higher than 1%-2%(*). Things were different in the good old days, up to about 1970, when, with an EROEI around 40, crude oil production grew at a yearly rate of 7%. It seemed normal, at that time, but it was the result of very special conditions.

So, the problem is here: our society is fixated on growth and, in order to have high rates of growth, we need high EROEIs. Renewables are good for a steady-state society but probably can't support a fast growing one. But is it a bad thing? I wouldn't say so. We have grown enough with crude oil, actually way too much. Slowing down, and even going back a little, can only improve the situation.

(*) The present problem is not to keep the unsustainable growth rates that society is accustomed to. It is how to grow renewable energy fast enough to replace fossil fuels before depletion or climate change (or both) destroy us. This is a difficult but not impossible task. The current fraction of energy produced by wind and solar combined is less than 2% of the final consumption (see p. 28 of the REN21 report), so we need a yearly growth of more than 10% to replace fossils by 2050. Right now, both solar and wind are growing at more than a 20% yearly rate, but this high rate is obtained using energy from fossil fuels. The calculations indicate that it is possible to keep these growth rates while gradually phasing out fossil fuels by 2050, as described here

 

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