Olduvai Revisited

Off the keyboard of RE

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Back in the 1990s, Richard Duncan proposed the “Olduvai Theory”, which put a timeline on the lifespan of Industrialized civilization based on available per capita energy.  It is built on the work of M. King Hubbert, who first projected out when we would reach “Peak Oil” production based on depletion rates versus new discoveries.  As we move along the timeline here, both theories are proving themselves to be very accurate in their projections.

When we get into Peak Oil discussions and projections, most often the focus is around Gas Prices, Carz, the Transportation system and Happy Motoring.  These questions are very important of course, because the Mobility of this civilization is one of its most defining characteristics.  Prior to the existence of Carz and Airplanez, just about everyone on earth in Ag Societies spent their entire lives inside a few square miles of territory, unless they were conscripted up into an Army to go out and try and expand the borders of their territory.  The H-Gs travelled around a bit wider area than that, but not by all that much until they got use of Horses.

While it is becoming apparent from decreasing Car Salez in Eurotrashland that ever fewer people will have access to this transport mechanism, an even more devastating consequence of the Olduvai theory which hits right at home where you live is no longer on the far horizon, but just over the next Ridge.  That is the loss of Electricity in the Industrialized areas that have built Grids over the last Century or so.

Richard Duncan’s Per Capita energy graph identified 2012 as the year that the Blackouts would begin, and this has proved true in spades over the course of this year.  There were the two major Blackouts in India which affected over 300M people, and then in the last month Blackouts affecting large swaths of both Brasil and Argentina.  Add to that of couse also the Blackouts resultant from Frankenstorm Sandy here in the FSofA, and it should be fairly obvious that system wide on a Global level the Eletrical Grid is quite fragile and beginning to collapse.

The MSM is being mighty quiet about it, but the Blackouts are spreading rapidly. Argentina just got hit, and Brasil got hit a couple of weeks ago. I only checked on this after catching a mention in the comments on Economic Undertow.

2012 is EXACTLY the year Richard Duncan predicted the Blackouts would begin in the Olduvai Theory.


Buenos Aires hit by major blackout
November 8, 2012 – 14:47 AMT

PanARMENIAN.Net – Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, was hit by a major blackout that left more than a million homes without power and caused rush hour traffic jams.

Electricity also went off at the Congress building and presidential palace.

Power was back on in most districts by late Wednesday, Nov 7 evening. The electricity company said two high voltage lines had failed, amid record demand for energy after three days of high temperatures.

The blackout knocked out traffic lights and badly disrupted the metro system as people were heading home after work.

Electricity company Edesur said two high voltage cables had stopped working. Edesur spokeswoman Alejandra Martinez said that although the exact cause was not yet known, recent heavy demand had put a strain on the grid.

Buenos Aires has been sweltering for the past three days with temperatures of 33C.

Brazil Hit By New Blackout
October 26, 2012

SÃO PAULO—A blackout left millions in Brazil’s northeast without electricity for more than four hours Friday, the latest in a series of power failures that have raised questions about the pace of infrastructure investments as the country readies to host major international sporting events.

A short-circuit at a transmission line knocked out power to states in Brazil’s northeast, one of the poorest yet fastest-growing regions in the country. The transmission-line failure also led to a sharp drop in the energy supplied to Brazil’s north, according to the government operator of the national transmission network. Energy was restored to 70% of normal levels four hours later, officials said.

The blackout, at least the fourth in the past two months, comes as the government is trying to push down energy prices to boost growth and foster infrastructure investment to prepare for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.

“The sequence of occurrences that we had, in terms of probability, is practically impossible, but it happened,” said Marcio Zimmermann, interim Mines and Energy Minister, during a news conference in Brasília. He discarded the possibility of sabotage and said his ministry is carrying out a full investigation as to the causes.

Mr. Zimmermann praised Brazil’s system as “among the best in the world,” and said the network has been receiving “continuous investment.”

Taesa, the company that operates the transmission system that failed Friday, said electric storms near the transmission lines may have led to a short-circuit. A failure of the primary safety system at a substation forced secondary systems to shut down the network in a larger area, Taesa Chief Executive Jose Ragone Filho said during the news conference in Brasília.

According to government energy-research corporation EPE, Brazil needs to invest more than 8.5 billion Brazilian reais ($4.2 billion) through 2015 to expand the country’s transmission capacity.

The Brazilian government has been reducing the rates of return for distribution and transmission companies during its power-price revision cycles, leading many in the industry to cry foul. Last month, the government also said it would automatically renew generation and transmission licenses, but only in exchange for companies drastically cutting prices.

With the lower returns—and a low expected level of reimbursement for unamortized investments carried out by the companies—many industry analysts recommended that transmission companies return their licenses rather than hold on to those transmission lines and risk operating at a loss.

“The government has a vision that everything is fine, but there is a lack of investment,” a São Paulo-based electric-industry analyst said. “Prices for transmission and distribution are falling and so there isn’t much motivation for companies to invest beyond the minimum necessary.”

Hermes Chipp, president of the national transmission network, ONS, said Friday’s blackout wasn’t due to a lack of investment.

“It wasn’t due to age or lack of maintenance, as this is new equipment. There was a fire,” Mr. Chipp said in a televised interview. “We’re taking corrective and preventive measures in order to minimize these occurrences.”

Among the planned measures is strengthening Brazil’s backup systems so that a failure at one transmission line won’t knock out power for an entire region, Mr. Chipp said.

The country needs to strengthen its electric grid to avoid problems at the sporting events. At the start of this month, a soccer match between Argentina and Brazil was canceled after a power failure at the Argentine stadium, reigniting worries that something similar could happen in Brazil in 2014.

With apparent hopes of avoiding such an embarrassment, Brazil on Thursday raised the permitted debt limit for state-controlled utilities in the 12 states that will host a World Cup game.

You can of course blame Mother Nature for the Frankenstorm Sandy Blackout, but at the same time every time they get a major storm up on the East Coast these days they have Blackouts, then spend a few days/weeks and DOLLARS to restring the wiring and get everything powered up again.  So where does the MONEY come from to keep fixing up the system every time it breaks down?  Answer, DEBT of course.  So it has been true ever since the first Electrical Grid ever got put up by Thomas Alva Edison in Buffalo, NY back at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Every little community anywhere in the world that wanted to get Wired Up for electricity has had to take on Debt to do that.  Nobody ever put up an Electric Grid and power station using Savings from selling Olives and Feta Cheese, for instance.  Who is eligible to take out such Massive Loans to build such things?  Generally speaking only entire Nation-States or very large Multi-National Corporations have the “Creditworthiness” to take out $Billion$ loans to get such infrastructure up.

So for about the last 80 years, Credit has been issued fast and furious to both Nation-States and Multi-Nationals to build the infrastructure, on the theory it eventuallycanpay for itself through increased Productivity, but it never does that.  It does increase productivity some,but not to the degree that it increases Waste.

MOST of the use of Electricity is completely non-productive.  It produces nothing to cool an Office Building with HVAC, it just brings the temperature downinside to livable conditions for that workday. You can’t”save”anyof the Light illuminating your apartment, it is just useful to see while it is on so can increase the length of your workday,  but again most of it is going to waste.

Electricity gets further wasted in simply processing the Waste that electricity produces!  Sewage Treatment plants gobble up huge amounts of power, and every time a power grid goes down, the Drinking Water supply becomes compromised.

As we reach the end of the Age of Oil, the Credit necessary to keep rebuilding these grids when they periodically collapse is being triaged off, with the least credit worthy Nation-States like Greece and Argentina getting hit first here.  We haven’t heard yet about a major Greek Blackout, but one suspects the main reason for that is Greeks are having the Power turned off in their homes as they cannot pay their electric bills anymore, along with the mortgage.  Over in Spain, McMansion Dwellers are commiting Suicide as the Gestapo show up to evict them from their Debt Underwater dwellings.

In places like Brazil, Argentina and India, a HUGE portion of the people CONSUMING the electricity aren’t on the Billing Cycle for the electric company at all, they PIRATE the power.  This is what makes such places more succeptible to massive Power Crashes from overload on hot days.

Here in the FSofA, sytem wide long term Electric Power outtages still seem to be a few years off.  First off, as a Nation-State with the Big Ass Military, the FSofA is considered somewhat Credit Worthy on the international markets, and second the FSofA can extend credit to ITSELF for some indeterminate time period also.  Probably for about as long as the BAM can STEAL Oil from the MENA countries currently engulfed in various Civil Wars.

Despite the fact Ringfenced Economies like the FSofA, China and Germany may keep their Lights On longer than peripheral economies like Greece, Argentina and Brazil, the Knock-On effects of decreasing Electric availability in the “Developing” Nations impact the GDP of all of these “productive” countries.  What they Produce in the main are many Toys that require Electricity to function, and you can’t sell more of thsoe Toys to people who don’t have electricity functioning in their homes and workplaces.  Whether you produce large HVAC systems to sell to Bizness and Real Estate Developers or sell Iphones and LCD Big Screen TVs to Konsumers, the market for both is shrinking.  The debt you took on to build the Factories to make these products on the assumption you could sell them to an ever increasing population of people who could afford to buy them  is rapidly becoming unserviceable debt. As the sales of these toys drop, the Tax Revenue drops for these countries, and they also will no longer be able to service their debts either.

Ever decreasing numbers of available Jobs in all these economies leads to more Unemployment,followed by more Political Instability. Eventually, as is the case already in Spain and Greece, NO Political or Economic compromise can work, in real terms the Energy required to run the systems is not there for everyone to waste.  For one groupof people to maintain access, another group has to be triaged off.

On the grand scale, eventually all the Big Power Plants serving large areas will go offline,and for a while the Uber Rich will keep Lights On in Walled Enclaves with some local power generation methods,but this too will fail in the long run, ot the least of the reasons being said walled communities will be Invaded by Hordes of Lights OFF people smashing all their Light Bulbs.

How LONG will this all take until it is LIGHTS OUT everywhere?  Well, Richard Duncan’s curve has a pretty steep slope to it, so somewhere between 2030 and 2050 seems like a good bet to make on this one.

In the meantime for the Individual, reducing your dependence on steady electric power is a good idea.  There is likely to be a fairly protracted period of “brownouts” before  it is Lights Off for GOOD.  Some Battery Backups utilizing Automotive Lead Acid Batteries and AC Power Inverters is pretty reasonable to invest in for a few hundred dollars.  Add in a couple of Solar PV panels and RV Wind Turbines, for a bit more you can probably keep your Laptop running while the grid is down.

Longer term, begin to come to grips with the fact Lights at the Flick of a Switch and Refrigerators keeping Marie Callendar Frozen Meals is not likely to last much longer, and keep more Dried and Canned Foods around then Refigerated ones.  You won’t lose as much when the power goes down for a week or two.  For those of us in the 1st world, we may keep the lights on another 20 years, and I am not likely to last longer than that, if that.  For those of you younger folks in better health with expectations to live past this period, put on your Rewilding Thinking Cap now.  You’re gonna need it.


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