Renewable Energy

Reflections on the Twilight of the Age of Oil (Part II)

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on July 15, 2016


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Part 2 – Enquiring into the appropriateness of the question

Let’s acknowledge it, the situation we are in, as depicted summarily in Part 1, is complex.  As many commentators like to state, there is still plenty of oil, coal, and gas left "in the ground".  Since 2014, debates have been raging, concerning the assumed “oil glut”, concerning how low oil prices may go down, how high prices may rebound as demand possibly picks up and the “glut” vanishes, and, in the face of all this, what may or may not happen regarding “renewables”.  However, in my view, the situation is not impossible to analyse rigorously, away from what may appear as common sense but that may not withstand scrutiny.  For example, Part 1 data have indicated,that most of what’s left in terms of fossil fuels is likely to stay where it is, underground, without this requiring the implementation of  difficult to agree upon resource management policies, simply because this is what thermodynamics dictates.
We can now venture a little bit further if we keep firmly in mind that the globalised industrial world (GIW), and by extension all of us, do not “live” on fossil resources but on net energy delivered by the global energy system; and if we also keep in mind that, in this matter, oil-derived transport fuels are the key since, without them, none of the other fossil and nuclear resources can be mobilised and the GIW itself can’t function.
In my experience, most often, when faced with such a broad spectrum of conflicting views, especially involving matters pertaining to physics and the social sciences, the lack of agreement is indicative that the core questions are not well formulated.  Physicist David Bohm liked to stress: “In scientific enquiries, a crucial step is to ask the right question.  Indeed each question contains presuppositions, largely implicit.  If these presuppositions are wrong or confused, the question itself is wrong, in the sense that to try to answer it has no meaning.  One has thus to enquire into the appropriateness of the question.”
Here it is important, in terms of system analysis, to differentiate between the global energy industry (say, GEI) and the GIW. The GEI bears the brunt of thermodynamics directly, and within the GEI, the oil industry (OI) is key since, as seen in Part 1, it is the first to reach the thermodynamics limit of resource extraction and, since it conditions the viability of the GEI’s other components – in their present state and within the remaining timeframe, they can’t survive the OI’s eventual collapse.  On the other hand, the GIW is impacted by thermodynamic decline with a lag, in the main because it is buffered by debt – so that by the time the impact of the thermodynamic collapse of the OI becomes undeniable it’s too late to do much about it.
At the micro level, debt can be "good" – e.g. a company borrows to expand and then reimburses its debt, etc…  At the macro level, it can be, and has now become, lethal, as the global debt can no longer be reimbursed (I estimate the energy equivalent of current global debt, from states, businesses, and households to be in the order of some 10,700EJ, while current world energy use is in the order of 554EJ; it is no longer doable to “mind the gap”).

Crude oil prices are dropping to the floor

Figure 4 – The radar signal for an Oil Pearl Harbor
In brief, the GIW has been living on ever growing total debt since around the time net energy from oil per head peaked in the early 1970s.  The 2007-08 crisis was a warning shot.  Since 2012, we have entered the last stage of this sad saga – when the OI began to use more energy (one should talk in fact of exergy) within its own productions chains than what it delivers to the GIW.  From this point onwards retrieving the present financial fiat system is no longer doable.
This 2012 point marked a radical shift in price drivers.[1]  Figure 4 combines the analyses of TGH (The Hills Group) and mine. In late 2014 I saw the beginning of the oil price crash as a signal of a radar screen.  Being well aware that EROIs for oil and gas combined had already passed below the minimum threshold of 10:1, I understood that this crash was different from previous ones: prices were on their way right down to the floor.  I then realised what TGH had anticipated this trend months earlier, that their analysis was robust and was being corroborated by the market there and then.
Until 2012, the determining price driver was the total energy cost incurred by the OI.  Until then the GIW could more or less happily sustain the translation of these costs into high oil prices, around or above $100/bbl.  This is no longer the case.  Since 2012, the determining oil price driver is what the GIW can afford to pay in order to still be able to generate residual GDP growth (on borrowed time) under the sway of a Red Queen that is running out of thermodynamic “breath”.  I call the process we are in an “Oil Pearl Harbour", taking place in a kind of eerie slow motion. This is no longer retrievable.  Within roughly ten years the oil industry as we know it will have disintegrated.  The GIW is presently defenceless in the face of this threat.

The Oil Fizzle Dragon-King

Figure 5 – The “Energy Hand”
To illustrate how the GEI works I often compare its energy flows to the five fingers of the one hand: all are necessary and all are linked (Figure 5). Under the Red Queen, the GEI is progressively loosing its “knuckles” one by one like a kind of unseen leprosy – unseen yet because of the debt “veil” that hides the progressive losses and more fundamentally because of what I refer to at the bottom of Figure 5, namely were are in what I call Oil Fizzle Dragon-King. 
A Dragon-King (DK) is a statistical concept developed by Didier Sornette of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, and a few others to differentiate high probability and high impact processes and events from Black Swans, i.e. events that are of low probability and high impact.  I call it the Oil Fizzle because what is triggering it is the very rapid fizzling out of net energy per barrel.  It is a DK, i.e. a high probability, high impact unexpected process, purely because almost none of the decision-making elites is familiar with the thermodynamics of complex systems operating far from equilibrium; nor are they familiar with the actual social workings of the societies they live in.  Researchers have been warning about the high likelihood of something like this at least since the works of the Meadows in the early 1970s.[2] 
The Oil Fizzle DK is the result of the interaction between this net energy fizzling out, climate change, debt and the full spectrum of ecological and social issues that have been mounting since the early 1970s – as I noted on Figure 1, the Oil Fizzle DK is in the process of whipping up a “Perfect Storm” strong enough to bring the GIW to its knees.  The Oil Pearl Harbour marks the Oil Fizzle DK getting into full swing. 
To explain this further, with reference to Figure 5, oil represents some 33% of global primary energy use (BP data). Fossil fuels represented some 86% of total primary energy in 2014.  However, coal, oil, and gas are not like three boxes neatly set side by side from which energy is supplied magically, as most economists would have it.
In the real world (i.e. outside the world economists live in), energy supply chains form networks, rather complex ones.  For example, it takes electricity to produce many products derived from oil, coal, and gas, while electricity is generated substantially from coal and gas, and so on.  More to the point, as noted earlier, because 94% of all transport is oil-based, oil stands at the root of the entire, complex, globalised set of energy networks.  Coal mining, transport, processing, and use depend substantially on oil-derived transport fuels; ditto for gas.[3]   The same applies to nuclear plants.  So the thermodynamic collapse of the oil industry, that is now underway, not only is likely to be completed within some 10 years but is also in the process of triggering a falling domino effect (aka an avalanche, or in systemic terms, a self-organising criticality, a SOC). 
Presently, and for the foreseeable future, we do not have substitutes for oil derived transport fuels that can be deployed within the required time frame and that would be affordable to the GIW.  In other words, the GIW is falling into a thermodynamic trap, right now. As B. W. Hill recently noted, “The world is now spending $2.3 trillion per year more to produce oil than what is received when it is sold. The world is now losing a great deal of money to maintain its dependence on oil.”

The Tooth Fairy Syndrome

To come back to David Bohm’s “question about the question”, in my view, we are in this situation fundamentally because of what I call the “Tooth Fairy Syndrome”, after a pointed remark by B.W. Hill in an Internet debate early last year: “It is interesting that not one analyst has yet come to the very obvious conclusion that it requires oil to produce oil.  Perhaps they think it is delivered by the Tooth Fairy?”  This remark vividly characterised for me the prevalence of a fair amount of magical thinking at the heart of decision-making within both the GEI and the GIW, aka economics as a perpetual motion machine fantasy.  Unquestioned delusional beliefs lead to wrong conclusions.
This is not new.  Here are a few words of explanation.  In 1981, I met US anthropologist Laura Nader at the Australia New Zealand Association of the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) Congress held that year at University of Queensland in Brisbane.  We were both guest speakers at seminars focusing on Energy and Equity, and in particular on how societies actually deal with energy matters, energy crises and decide about courses of action.  The title of her paper was “Energy and Equity, Magic, Science, and Religion Revisited”.
In recent years, Nader had become part of US bodies overseeing responses to the first and second oil shocks and the US nuclear energy industry (she was a member of the National Academy of Science's Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Systems, CONAES). As an anthropologist, she was initially taken aback by what she observed and proceeded to apply her anthropological skills to try and understand the weird “tribes” she had landed into.  The title of her paper was a wink at Malinowski’s famous work on the Trobriands in 1925.  
Malinowski had pointed out that: “There are no people, however primitive without religion or magic.  Nor are there… any savage races [sic] lacking either in the scientific attitude or in science though this lack has been frequently attributed to them.”  
Nader had observed that prevailing decision-making in the industrialised world she was living in was also the outcome of a weird mix of “Magic, Science, and Religion” with magical and mythical, quasi religious, thinking predominating among people who were viewed and who viewed themselves as rational and making scientifically grounded decisions.  At the time I was engaged in very similar research, had observed exactly the same kind of phenomena in my own Australasian fieldwork and had reached similar conclusions.
In my observations, since the 1970s the prevalence of this syndrome has considerably worsened. This is what I seek to encapsulate as the Tooth Fairy Syndrome.  With the Oil Peal harbour, the unquestioned sway of the Tooth Fairy is coming to an end.  However, the imprint of Tooth Fairy thinking remains so strong that most discussions and analyses remain highly confused, even within scientific circles still taking economic notions for granted. 
In the longer run, the end effect of the Oil Fizzle DK is likely to be an abrupt decline of GHG emissions.  However, the danger I see is that meanwhile the GEI, and most notably the OI, is not going to just “curl up and die”.  I think we are in a “die hard” situation.  Since 2012, we are already seeing what I call a Big Mad Scramble (BMS) by a wide range of GEI actors that try to keep going while they still can, flying blind into the ground.  The eventual outcome is hard to avoid with a GEI operating with only about 12% energy efficiency, i.e. some 88% wasteful current primary energy use.  The GIW’s agony is likely to result in a big burst of GHG emissions while net energy fizzles out.  The high danger is that the old quip will eventuate on a planetary scale: “the operation was successful but the patient died”…  Hence my call for “enquiring into the appropriateness of the question” and for systemic thinking.  We are in deep trouble.  We can’t afford to get this wrong.
Next: Part 3 – Standing slightly past the edge of the cliff




Bio: Dr Louis Arnoux is a scientist, engineer, and entrepreneur committed to the development of sustainable ways of living and doing business.  His profile is available on Google+  at:






[1] As THG have conclusively clarified, see



[2] The Meadows’ original work has been amply corroborated over the ensuing decades.  See for example, Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, 2004, A Synopsis: Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, The Donella Meadows Institute; Turner, Graham, 2008, A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality, Socio-Economics and the Environment in Discussion, CSIRO Working Paper Series 2008-09; Hall, Charles A. S. and Day, John W, Jr, 2009, “Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil” in American Scientist, May-June; Vuuren, D.P. van and Faber, Albert, 2009, Growing within Limits, A Report to the Global Assembly 2009 of the Club of Rome, Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency; and Turner, Graham, M., 2014, Is Global Collapse Imminent? An Updated Comparison of The Limits to Growth with Historical Data, MSSI Research Paper No. 4, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.



[3] Although there is a drive to use more and more liquefied natural gas for gas tankers and ordinary ship fuel bunkering



The Renewable Energy Survey: RESULTS

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Published on The Doomstead Diner on June 12, 2016


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Take the Renewable Energy Survey HERE (still open!)

Survey Discussion & Analysis with Ugo Bardi & Gail Tverberg

The RES has accumulated an enormous amount of data, so now is a good time to take a Snapshot of what the current attitudes are about its potential for maintaining the techno-industrial lifestyle.

Before we look at the numbers though, a few important points about the sample.  By no means is this a random sample of attitudes of the world at large.  If you were to drop this survey on USA Today, I am quite sure you would get completely different results.  This sample comes from 6 main websites:

Cassandra's Legacy

Our Finite World

The Archdruid Report

Economic Undertow

Reddit r/collapse & r/globalcollapse

The Doomstead Diner

There are a few contributions from other sites like Global Economic Intersection and Reddit r/solar, but by far the majority come from the sites listed above.  If you were on the list to receive the full data set, you can see how many results came from each site, most respondents did list their referral site.

All of these sites have a readership which follows collapse issues and dynamics, and there is something of a consensus opinion on these sites that industrial civilization is bound for collapse.  The results of the survey reflect that consensus.  However, the results also demonstrate that there are two distinct sub-camps among these readers, those that hold out some hope for a technological solution, and those who do not believe a technological solution can work.

For the population being sampled, this survey is highly significant and a statistically reliable measure of the population being surveyed, estimated at around 50,000.  It comes in with a 95% Confidence level with a 5% margin of error roughly.  For the most part also, since the first 50 or so responses came in, the percentages for the responses and their distribution really hasn't varied all that much.  I will leave the survey open after this article publishes to see if there is any change in the later submissions.

As a long time reader of the Collapse Blogosphere, the aggregate results of the survey didn't surprise me at all.  Does this mean the survey is correct in its predictions of timelines and numbers?  Not necessarily, but it does tell you what most of the people reading collapse blogs THINK will occur and when it will occur.  Given these readers follow the trends more closely than the average J6P, they're making a more informed decision than most people would.  It's also a very highly educated sample, with over 75% of respondents with Baccalaureate degree or above.  One of the most interesting things to do is to parse the data by the demographics, to see the differences in attitudes by things like age, gender, education level and so forth.  I'm not going to do that in this post, but readers who get the spreadsheet will be able to do that quite easily.

 survey-saysOK, all that being said, now let's look at the results themselves!  With each of the graphs, I'll include a few of the text responses that came in also.  All the text responses are included in the spreadsheet.  I calculated this data when the total submissions were at 237, they have increased some since but percentages haven't changed significantly.

First up, Ugo Bardi's original question from a survey he did on a renewable energy forum a few weeks ago.  In that survey, he got a generally positive view of the future potential of RE.  The Kollapsniks we got survey submissions from are not so positive.

The question is about the possibility of a society not too different from ours (**) but 100% based on renewable energy sources, and on the possibility of obtaining it before it is too late to avoid the climate disaster. This said, what statement best describes your position?


It is impossible for technical reasons. (Renewables have too low EROEIs, need too large amounts of natural resources, we'll run out of fossil fuels first, climate change will destroy us first, etc.)


It is technically possible but so expensive to be unthinkable.


It is technically possible and not so expensive to be beyond our means. However, it is still expensive enough that most likely people will not want to pay the costs of the transition before it will be too late to achieve it, unless we move to a global emergency status.


It is technically possible and inexpensive enough that it can be done smoothly, by means of targeted government intervention, such as a carbon tax.


It is technically possible and technological progress will soon make it so inexpensive that normal market mechanisms will bring us there nearly effortlessly.

Standard Deviation Responses
All Data 128
43.04 237


The low EROEIs of renewables would require change to our industrial civilisation but I think that it could be qualitatively similar. The differences are enough though to create fierce resistance to that change, until it's too late to be effective.

It's technically possible but the amount we need to cut would require a radically different type of society. A type of society that would be fervently fought against by our world leaders. At the very least we need some kind of steady state economy.

Having significantly less people located in areas of high carrying capacity or high energy density would perhaps let us remain similar in quality but not in quantity. A timely transition though does not seem likely. However all depends on what is meant with "ours". If it means the average internet user – it will be different.

If you look at the first two choices as being from those who do not see renewable energy as being a possible solution and the last 3 choices as those who give it at least some chance for success, you are at about 62% with little hope it will help as opposed to 38% with some hope that it will.  What this indicates is that for people trying to promote RE as a solution, they're not convincing most people in the collapse blogosphere of this.  That doesn't mean they are wrong of course, it just means the ideas aren't selling too well in this population.

What are the major impediments to replacing fossil fuels with Renewable Energy? (rank from biggest impediment to smallest by sliding the choices up and down with your mouse on the icon to the left of the choice)


In When trucks stop running, I show why an 80 to 100% renewable grid is not possible (partly based on research from Germany and Europe, which are far ahead of the USA in this). Indeed, DOE found that we may not even be able to cope with a 56 to 61% renewable powered grid — it is too unstable. But mainly because of limited sites for pumped hydro, CAES, geothermal, and the cost and scale of electrochemical batteries.

Fossil fuel energy use quantity is unlikely to be replaceable for a very long time to come. Most energy use is a means to a specific end though, and if the needs and desires can be met in a similar manner a full replacement is not necessary. That is why political ranks highest. Thermodynamics is likely to be a major impediment in the short and medium term (e.g. centuries). Characterizing transportation systems with a scalar is not adequate, but the gist remains the same.

The obsession to use electricity for everything is not good due thermodinamical reasons (many conversions, ineficiencies in some electrical uses, intermitenci, etc). This adds to intermitency, seasonality, YoY variability, that implies overscaling, that implies energy storing, that implies damn high costs, that are too expensive to adapt this to transportation that is the backbone of our economy right now. This will lead to increased costs, lower wages and salaries, and feedback into our economy. After all, what we are seeing now is that EROEI is too low even for FF, to sustain our economy and society. Lower EROEI of RE will do things worse. If the current status of economy (and FF depletion) will allow us to do some real switch.

I tend to agree that the biggest impediment here is the battery technology, for all sorts of reasons.  Mining up all the materials necessary for enough battery storage to balance the loads is probably impossible to do, even if there are enough materials in the ground to do it.  All manufacturing processes also create tremendous waste products, and figuring out how to safely dispose of them would be a large problem too.

I do think that the thermodynamic issue is underrated here.  Although certainly plenty of energy drops on the earth from the Sun every day, how much of it is actually collectible and convertable to usable form?  Can you get the energy from where it might be collected (say ocean waves) to where it would be used somewhere on land without a huge loss in the transmission?  What kind of EROEI is there for this?

Rank which form of Renewable Energy from which is Most Likely to be Successful to Least Likely to be Successful.


Where is nuclear power? It seems to me that nuclear is renewable on the timescales that matter for climate change, and fully renewable if "on the horizon" designs of breeder reactors are considered. The one thing that is irrefutable is that nuclear is a low carbon technology, which is also despatchable. As such, it seems incredible that you don't include it in a transitioned world view. This is especially true as it currently contributes over a tenth of global electricity supply, which is more than wind!

When it comes to energetic return on investment, hydro tends to work better than wind, which works better than solar. Draft animal power, slave labor, water wheels, micro-hydro, and mechanical windmills have already been proven to work in pre-industrial conditions (though they don't provide much energy). For the others, large-scale systems tend to benefit from economies of scale.

Direct action renewables will be the real only source of energy in the future. Electrical society wouldn't work, and would lead to social collapse. The amount of resources to keep our current tecnology alive is overwhelming. Semiconductors, the cornerstone of our technology and the actual bet for All Electric RE require >70 elements of the periodic table. And they are NOT RENEWABLE.

In the text responses, I began with the Nuclear Energy critique, because this came up several times.  I responded to my rationale for that in my last RES post, which is that when constructing the survey I don't myself generally lump Nuclear in the "Renewable" category, although you can make the case that it is.  If I had it to do over again, I probably would include this as a choice.  There were other forms of potentially renewable energy I neglected to include as well, Solar Thermal, Small Scale Geothermal and Biomass.  However, the selection I did include allows for a good parsing of the attitudes on which of these is most likely to succeed vs not likely to succeed.

Now, because most respondents have a negative view of renewables overall, the top vote getter in this question was NOTHING is going to work to keep our modern techno-industrial culture going, and I tend to agree with that.  However, you do have the transition question to deal with, and where to invest the effort, time and money on which type of RE to develop as we spin down?

Generally the large scale projects such as Hydro plants and large Solar PV farms get a low ranking, and I agree with that.  Smaller scale distributed systems have better potential, particularly of the direct, low tech kind like Water Wheels and mechanical Windmills.  While these won't allow maintenance of a high tech society, they hold potential for keeping the slide from dropping all the way down to stone age technology and lifestyle.

One area I COMPLETELY disagree with the consensus is the high ranking of Human Slave Labor.  Of all these forms of energy conversion to work (Homo Saps aren't the energy here, just the machine.  The food they eat is the energy), Homo Saps easily have the lowest EROEI, it is actually probably negative.  It takes HUGE surplus of resources to run a slave society, besides the cost for keeping the slaves fed clothed and housed so they are available for work in a renewable fashion, you ALSO need a large class of Overseers and a Military to keep these slaves in line and not revolting.  While we may see some slave societies develop during this spin down, it is not likely they will last long, and definitely not renewable in a world of overall deficit.

If we could make a full conversion to Renewable Energy resources overnight, with the current climate conditions what would be the maximum population you think the Earth would support of Homo Saps sustainably, including all the Best Practices of Permaculture, Hydroponics and Aquaculture? (pick the choice closest to the number you think most likely)


>7.2 Billion People (current population or more)


















<10K Homo Saps will go Extinct

Standard Deviation Responses
All Data 30
28.92 229









The population of <1B based on photosynthesis energy prior to fossil fuels wasn't all that sustainable as it was practiced. There was still extinctions of large species, soil degradation etc. With the addition of renewables I think 1B could be entirely sustainable.

Impossible to determine. I picked a number closest to global population as the industrial revolution began. We should expect to be able to maintain a population above that level due to subsequent technological advances – but disruptions will lower carrying capacity for a significant amount of time. Therefore, a population level as it was in pre-industrial times. 4 billion seems too optimistic.

Approx. the equivalent of world population pre-Columbus. In the Americas they were building soil and in Europe they were forestalling an ice age, roughly holding a balance. That is sustainable. Nuclear war or multiple meltdowns would cut that number because of contaminated land area.

Of all the questions on the survey, this one was of the most interest to me personally.  Reason for that is all the hubbub about Near Term Human Extinction you run across these days on all the collapse sites, not just on Guy McPherson's blog Nature Bats Last.  I was real curious as to how deeply this meme has penetrated among the average Kollapsniks, and apparently not too well.  Only 2% of the respondents think Homo Sap will drop below 10,000 Human Souls and then go Extinct.  That's the Good Newz here! 🙂

Now the Bad NewzBY FAR, the overall consensus amongst Kollapsniks is a population die off down to 1B Human Souls, maybe 12% of the current population.  There is no timeline to this question, but even if you figure it will take a full century to get down to that figure, that means for every year from now to 2116, you have to have more than 60M Deaths than Births in every single one of those years.  For scale here in ALL the years of WWII, 60M people died, about 3% of the World Population in 1940 estimated at 2.3B.  So basically here you would have to QUADRUPLE the death rate from WWII, and do that every year from now to 2116.  This scenario seems highly unlikely to me.

The more likely scenario is a crisis point to be reached, probably a year to a decade  in length where the world food supply drops and there is large scale starvation through many parts of the world.  I doubt this die off will stretch out over a century.  Can techno -industrial culture survive such a die off period with all the geopolitical problems and environmental problems resultant from it?  Burying the bodies alone will be an enormous task!  Even recycling them as Soylent Green will take a huge build out of infrastructure of Human Waste Recycling Centers!

Because of all these problems, while I think the Earth probably could support 1B Human souls, I voted an order of magnitude below that at 100M.  That is still a pretty good number though, and way short of extinction! 🙂  If we build a lot of good renewable energy infrastructure now, it could go a long way toward making the lives of the survivors better. 🙂

In what year do you expect to see the beginning of regular brownouts & blackouts and gas shortages in the United States? (choose the answer closest to the year you expect this to begin)












Energy scarcity in the United States will not be a problem for the forseeable future. Renewable Energy will pick up the slack.

Standard Deviation Responses
All Data 24
21.46 229








It could happen sooner if the economy collapses before that. Also it will not be uniformly seen if it happens. Cities will likely continue to have electrical power as first priority customers due to population and political clout.

The US will be one of the last places to feel the squeeze on resources due to it's wealth. I do think the decline in oil production will be readily apparent in the early 2020's.

US has large amounts of natural gas plus coal to insure electrical supplies can be maintained for quite some time. Brown outs can also come from another form of "rationing" that is many people who fall out of the economy due to unemployment will use less energy thus freeing capacity for members of society who can afford electricity. This scenario assumes there are no major outbreaks of war or there is no large scale political/social upheaval. If any of those scenarios apply then all bets are off.

This question is a close second for me to Q4, because it puts a timeline on when BAU might really start to be disrupted in 1st World countries.  The general population of these countries will not recognize BAU is going the way of the Dinosaur until the basic services of LIGHTS at the FLICK OF A SWITCH no longer work and they can't get gas on demand at every pump from Anchorage to Key West to fill up the SUV.

The VAST majority of respondents put the date for this sometime between 2020 & 2025.  I went Long on that one at 2025, basically because I think Demand Destruction through the 3rd World countries will outpace the supply shortages.  However, it really could occur anytime due to either a Financial System collapse or a major Geopolitical Event.

To finish off now with the survey stats to date, here's a Snapshot of the Demographics we got so far here.

My Gender is:(optional)







Standard Deviation Responses
All Data 194
83.57 231







My Age Range is:(Optional)

















Standard Deviation Responses
All Data 0
21.66 232







The Region of the World I live is:(Optional)


North America


Central America


South America








Middle East


Oceania (Australia-New Zealand)





Standard Deviation Responses
All Data 145
43.92 233

My highest level of formal education is:



High School Graduate


Some College or Technical School


Associate's Degree


Bachelor's Degree


Master's Degree


Doctorate Degree

Standard Deviation Responses
All Data 4
30.61 235
















Overall, it is a well balanced group in terms of Age, although skewed more toward the older age groups.  You can parse the data by age group to look for differences in the spreadsheet.  Education levels also well represented, again weighted toward people with a higher level of formal education.  Still a highly male dominated sample, but improved here from 10% early on to 14% responses from Females.  Geographic distribution ended up mostly North America, Europe dropped to 24% and Oz/NZ held steady around 10%.

Far as selling Renewable Energy goes, at least inside the Collapse Blogosphere it appears this will be a very hard sell indeed, not sure how hard it will be to sell to the general public though.  After years of discussions on these topics from all sides, the majority of Kollapsniks do not see this as a means to maintain the techno-industrial lifestyle.  Even so, this does not mean Renewable Energy is not worth pursuing, there are many reasons that it is, even if it can't keep 7.2 Ambulatory Homo Saps walking the Earth at the same time in perpetuity.  It may work to make the downspin slower and more manageable.  It may work to make it possible for more Homo Saps to survive a dieoff event.  It may work to keep the spark of inovation alive and present opportunities in the future to find the Holy Grail of enough energy and ways to apply it to get off Planet Earth before the Sun Goes Red Giant.  I don't see that as very likely, but if you can keep this going to some extent, it might be possible over a few million years.  So you do the best you can given the parameters and limitations you have here.

The Future is a Mystery, and nobody can predict it absolutely.  Nobody has all the answers, hell nobody really even has all the data to make a concrete prediction on a system with so many variables.  So you  just need to follow the Imperative of ALL LIVING CREATURES, which is to STAY ALIVE, just as long as you can.  Life is not meant for QUITTERS like Guy McPherson.  They can all go into Hospice and count the days down until they die.

It Aint OVAH till the Fat Lady Sings.

Let Nature be Nature

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Published on Peak Surfer on May 29, 2016


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"Can the extravagance of growth fanatics continue? Clearly not. Will President @realdonaldtrump keep the lemmings racing towards the cliff? Definitely so."



!Kung peoples managed their energy well – C.A.S. Hall

  After posting a pretty dour outlook last week we were amazed to watch it attract more page views more quickly than any of our previous 22 posts this year. No accounting for taste, we suppose.

At the risk of alienating our new audience right off the bat, we are posting something more upbeat this week.

We had two scientific papers shoved under our door, and both of are serious sources of hope for a world undergoing climate shock. They represent the two sides of the solution ledger, adaptation and mitigation.

The first is an open research white paper, The Sower’s Way: Quantifying the Narrowing Net-Energy Pathways to a Global Energy Transition, by Sgouris Sgouridis and Denes Csala of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, United Arab Emirates, and Ugo Bardi from the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Florence, Italy.




Hubbard Linearization – Courtesy C.A.S. Hall

The second is a journal article, published under a creative commons license in Science Advances 2016, entitled Carbon sequestration potential of second-growth forest regeneration in the Latin American tropics by 60 co-authors at 45 institutions in almost as many countries. The lead author is Robin L. Chazdon, a professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut and a visiting professor at the International Institute for Sustainability in Rio de Janeiro.

In The Sower’s Way, Sqouridis’ group looks at the INDPs (national pledges) submitted at the Paris climate conference in December, sees that they are clearly inadequate to arrest runaway climate chaos and near term human extinction (NTHE)) and asks the pregnant question, suppose they weren’t?

Suppose the overarching goal set in Paris — to phase out fossil energy by 2050 or sooner — were actually committed to by all those who exchanged pens at the signing of the legally binding treaty last month at One UN Plaza?




The Energy Cliff – Courtesy C.A. Hall

“Is it possible to satisfy the dual constraint of reducing emissions fast enough while achieving the desired energy availability?” the authors ask.




“… [I]mplicit in the COP21 agreement is that these reductions should be obtained while offering sufficient available energy for humankind, especially for developing countries that are ascending the energy availability ladder.”

After completing the study, one of the authors, Ugo Bardi, conducted a poll on the Doomstead Diner   of how realistic most doomers thought the renewables revolution to be.



What is the possibility of a society not too different from ours (but 100% based on renewable energy sources, and on the possibility of obtaining it before it is too late to avoid the climate disaster. This said, what statement best describes your position?

  1. Courtesy C.A.S. Hall

    It is impossible for technical reasons. (Renewables have too low EROEIs, need too large amounts of natural resources, we'll run out of fossil fuels first, climate change will destroy us first, etc.)

  2. It is technically possible but so expensive to be unthinkable. 
  3. It is technically possible and not so expensive to be beyond our means. However, it is still expensive enough that most likely people will not want to pay the costs of the transition before it will be too late to achieve it, unless we move to a global emergency status.
  4. It is technically possible and inexpensive enough that it can be done smoothly, by means of targeted government intervention, such as a carbon tax.
  5. It is technically possible and technological progress will soon make it so inexpensive that normal market mechanisms will bring us there nearly effortlessly.

Our own response, after returning from Paris, was: "option 6 – it will be faster than anyone expects.” Our reasoning was that once the curves cross  — and solar is cheaper than oil — there will be a mad rush to dump oil stocks and buy solar, without any consideration of net energy. Simian neurobiology will then be buckled into the driver’s seat, chasing lost investments with fresh money until every last shekel is exhausted. In the end, there will be a lot of solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal energy to show for the effort but just not anything resembling the consumerist civilization most people now take for granted.

There will not be Space Cadet academies on Mars.

The Sqouridis paper concludes that “renewable energy installation rates should accelerate and increase at least by a factor of 50 and perhaps more than 90 over current” in order to meet the UN sustainable development goals. They conclude that growth rate is entirely possible and may already be in process. The key, they say, is “the sower's strategy”:


“… the long-established farming practice to save a fraction of the current year's harvest as seeds for the next. Fossil fuels produce no “seed” of their own but we can “sow” what these fuels provide: energy and minerals to create the capital needed for the transition. Yet, withdrawing the “seed” energy reduces net available energy for society. The challenge therefore is to balance energy availability and emissions in order to complete a renewable transition before fossil fuel depletion makes it impossible without inflicting crippling damages on the climate.”


Courtesy J.G. Lambert

Moreover, to be rated a success, the solar power transition has to meet three criteria:


  1. The impacts from energy use during the transition should not exceed the long-run ecosystem carrying and assimilation capacity;
  2. Per capita net available energy should remain above a level that satisfies societal needs at any point during transition and without disruptive discontinuities in its rate of change; and
  3. The rate of investment in building renewable energy harvesting and utilization capital stock should be sufficient to create a sustainable energy supply basis without exhausting the non-renewable safely recoverable resources.

The group concluded:



In every case, a successful SET (sustainable energy transition) consists of a sustained acceleration in the rate of investment in renewable energy of more than one order of magnitude within the next three decades following a trajectory dictated by the chosen fossil-fuel phase-out. A peak in installation rates, but not cumulative capacity, forms at the point where the rate of energy demand growth starts to slow down.

In other words, the group concluded that Option 6 was the most likely: it will be faster than anyone expects. At least 50 times faster than it is right now.




Courtesy C.A.S. Hall

Meanwhile the seminal bioeconomist Charles A. Hall reminded us:




There are three good studies — Mohr et al.'s 2012 (Ward, J., S.H. Mohr, B. Meyers and W. Nel. 2012. High estimates of supply constrained emissions scenarios for long-term climate risk assessment. Energy Policy 51: 598-604); Maggio and Cacciola (Maggio, G., and G. Cacciola. 2012 "When will oil, natural gas, and coal peak?" Fuel 98: 111-123); Laherrere's ASPO-France web page —  that agree that there is likely to be a peak in ALL fossil fuels in +/- 2025 and then a sharp decline. It seems extremely unlikely that renewables will fill that gap. On the other hand the near cessation of economic growth in OECD countries and the slowdown for China might smooth out and slow down our approach to the peak. 



Murphy and Hall, 2011

With that opening salvo, we can see Hall’s studies and raise a few more:

Leggetta, L.M.W. and D.A. Ball. 2012. The implication for climate change and peak fossil fuel of the continuation of the current trend in wind and solar energy production, Energy Policy 41: 610-617. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2011.11.022:



Courtesy J.G. Lambert

Climate change, and more recently, the risk of fossil fuel production being unable to keep pace with demand (peak fossil fuel) are both considered as risks to civilisation, or global risks. In an initial empirical analysis, this paper attempts to answer the following questions, which have often been posed but have not, to our knowledge, been answered empirically at global level. At which date, if unaddressed, will the risks become critical? Given that the substitution of fossil fuels by wind and solar energy is often proposed as a solution to these problems, what is its current aggregate growth rate and is there a plausible future growth rate which would substitute it for fossil fuels before the risks become critical? The study finds that the peak fossil fuel risk will start to be critical by 2020. If however the future growth rate of wind and solar energy production follows that already achieved for the world mobile phone system or the Chinese National Expressway Network the peak fossil fuel risk can be prevented completely. For global warming, the same growth rate provides significant mitigation by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels to zero by the early 2030s.

Mohr, S.H., J. Wang, G. Ellem, J. Ward, and D. Giurco. 2015. Projection of world fossil fuels by country. Fuel 141: 120-135. doi:10.1016/j.fuel.2014.10.030:




We model world fossil fuel production by country including unconventional sources. The Low and Best Guess (BG) scenarios suggest that world fossil fuel production may peak before 2025 and decline rapidly thereafter. The High scenario indicates that fossil fuels may have a strong growth till 2025 followed by a plateau lasting approximately 50 years before declining. All three scenarios suggest that world coal production may peak before 2025 due to peaking Chinese production.



Courtesy C.A.S. Hall

Thus, whether lured by the carrot of a sun-powered future or frightened by the sound of the dip stick scraping the bottom of the oil pan, a Great Change is coming. But what is the shape of the curve? In comments to our last week’s post, reader Don Stewart wrote:

Harquebus, as quoted [on Ugo Bardi’s blog]:



“Whenever somebody with a decent grasp of maths and physics looks into the idea of a fully renewables-powered civilised future for the human race with a reasonably open mind, they normally come to the conclusion that it simply isn’t feasible.”

Stewart continues:




Courtesy C.A.S. Hall

We are completely convinced that the above statement is true, but that does not mean that renewables cannot be of significant use to modern society. It is not that they can replace fossil fuels, but they could considerably extend their useful life span. That could be as much as a century. At the world’s present consumption rate the oil age will be ending in 13 years, and society will have to pay a very high price to get it there. We are now witnessing the bankruptcy of the Petro-States,  and much of the Western world’s petroleum industry. Over the next five years it will become very apparent as to what is happening. Geothermal, wind, tidal power, small hydroelectric, and in some cases solar can replace much of the electricity production of the world — electricity that is now being supplied from our rapidly depleting fossil fuels.



Courtesy C.A.S. Hall

Of course clean electricity is not a substitute for fossil energy; nor are biofuels; nor are both in combination. Professor Hall recommends Alice Freidemann's new book When Trucks Stop Running for a fuller discussion of that issue. Friedemann blurbs:



Our era of abundance, and the freight transport system in particular, is predicated on the affordability and high energy density of a single fuel, oil. This book explores alternatives to this finite resource including other liquid fuels, truck and locomotive batteries and utility-scale energy storage technology, and various forms of renewable electricity to support electrified transport. Transportation also must adapt to other challenges: Threats from climate change, financial busts, supply-chain failure, and transportation infrastructure decay.

Hall, Friedemann and Stewart all raise a common point: assuming renewable energy was rolled out with adequate speed and with all the boost the last hours of ancient sunlight and fossil energy era technology can supply, is it enough? The answer to that question lies in our civic willingness to face limits, both to the size of the human population and to how much it consumes. Can the extravagance of growth fanatics continue? Clearly not. Will President @realdonaldtrump keep the lemmings racing towards the cliff? Definitely so.

Chazon’s 60 scientists looked at something entirely different. They asked the question, what if we let nature be nature? Would she recover? Would she do so in time? The answer, which is really quite shocking given what we presented here last week, is yes. We have only to step aside.

Chazon, et al, noticed that although deforestation in the world’s tropical regions, owing to expansion of cattle farming, urban sprawl and fire, continues to reduce overall forest cover, second-growth forests (SFs) are expanding in many deforested areas of Latin America. SFs emerge spontaneously in post-cultivation fallows, on abandoned farms and pastures, in the understory of ecological restoration plantings, and following assisted natural regeneration on private or communal lands. Given that there has been good satellite telemetry for more than 4 decades, Chazon’s group asked,




“What is the total predicted carbon storage potential of naturally regenerating forests over four decades across biomes and countries?”

The answer was “a lot.”

Only about 28% of the millions of hectares studied was second growth forest, but looking carefully at that part, the researchers concluded that if second-growth forests were permitted to recover, unaided by tree planting or other interventions, 8.48 gigaton of carbon would be net sequestered over 40 years just in the aboveground biomass. Calculating below ground carbon they say would add another 25% (although we think that is too low). Their number corresponds to a total sequestration of 31.09 Gt CO2, equivalent to emissions from fossil fuel use and industrial processes in all of Latin America and the Caribbean from 1993 to 2014.

Just imagine what could be achieved with the addition of step-harvesting of forest products and biochar from woody wastes — or if we just left alone the other 90 percent of the planet that would naturally revert to second-growth forest if were allowed to. In either of those scenarios, so much carbon would be sucked out of the atmosphere that Earth’s atmosphere could quickly recover to pre-industrial greenhouse gas levels in a time far short of 40 years.

Suicide is not the only option, as the volunteer on the other end of the hot line will tell you.

There are still choices.


The Renewable Energy Survey

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Published on The Doomstead Diner on May 29, 2016

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One of the biggest controversies among people who are aware of the Energy problems we face moving into the future is whether Renewable Energy (RE) can substitute for the Fossil Fuels (FF) we currently use to run our Industrial Lifestyle and Civilization. Can they produce enough energy, can we transition to them fast enough, can they replace all the things we use fossil fuels to power?


ugo-bardi-rLast week, Ugo Bardi of the blog Cassandra's Legacy  and Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Firenza in Italy put up the results of an Informal Survey he did of “experts” in RE who participate on a discussion forum dedicated to the topic. There were 70 respondents to this survey, and they mostly were positive in their view of the future potential of RE as a replacement for FFs. I thought it would be a good idea to get a wider sample of opinions on this topic, and hopefully a larger Sample Size as well in a new Renewable Energy Survey.  The first question in this survey is a duplicate of Ugo's question, the rest of the questions are designed to get further detail on your opinions on the future of RE as we move forward toward a Different Tomorrow.  I won't say better or worse, just that it surely will be different.


Now, our survey by no means is a Random Sample of the population at large, it is a sample of people who read blogs & websites where we are dropping the Links on to take the survey. However, we are not just dropping the links on Collapse oriented sites, we also are dropping them on Renewable Energy sites where the readers are generally more positive about the future potential for RE than on Collapse oriented sites. So we hope to get a balance of opinions in this way.


We also hope that the readers will email Friends & Relatives with the link to the survey, so we can get an even wider sample of opinions from people who don't usually concern themselves with this topic and don't haunt either the Renewable Energy blogs or Collapse Blogs. The larger the sample size we can get, the more accurate the results of the survey will be as a reflection of what people think about these issues.  Larger sample size also allows better parsing of data based on demographics. RE doesn't come in only One Flavor, there are many forms of it, some used since Antiquity such as Mechanical Windmills and Water Wheels, which go back to the Roman Empire at least. Animal Labor from Draft animals is also a form of Renewable Energy, as long as you have food for the Horses & Oxen anyhow. Similarly with Slave Labor of Homo Saps, as long as you can feed, clothe and house them in enough numbers they reproduce effectively, this also is a form of RE.  The energy itself in both the latter 2 cases comes in the form of FOOD, but for that energy to be converted to usable work, it needs a biological machine that does that, which mainly are draft animals and slave Homo Saps.


More commonly though, when you talk to modern people about RE, what they think of are Photovoltaic Panels popping up on some of the rooftops around Suburbia amongst people seeking to go “off grid”. They also picture the large Arrays of Wind Turbines sprinkled across mountains in California, along with huge Hydro plants like the Hoover Dam. One of the questions in our survey is what you think the relative effectiveness of each of these types of RE will have as we move into the future?


Other questions revolve around your opinions on how much energy we need to maintain the techno-industrial lifestyle, and how large a population of Homo Sap is sustainable on the planet in the absence of FFs, with only REs as a source of usable energy? If we made the transition today, how many people could live sustainably on Mother Earth? We also would like to know your opinion on when serious Energy Shortages for maintaining the Industrial Lifestyle will begin to be apparent in 1st World countries, using the United States as the primary example of a highly consumptive Industrial society.


Our survey provides room for detailed text answers to each question, along with the Multiple Choice and Ranking options for the questions. No matter what you do on such a survey, you never can provide all the answer choices everyone would like to see. The most common criticism we get with our surveys is that “you did not ask this or that” or “you did not provide this or that answer choice”. First off, you never can think of EVERY possibility in advance, and second even if you could your questions and answers would get way too long. So inevitably, any Survey is just a subset of possibilities. Another common criticism is that our surveys are not "scientifically" designed.  This is fucking horseshit to begin with, you don't need a Ph.D to ask a fucking question. lol.  However, insofar as designing tests that provide a decent measure of WTF you are trying to measure goes, I'm as close to an expert as you will get.  I spent several years working for The Princeton Review designing test questions to mimic the SAT for wannabee Ivy Leaguers seeking to get a leg up on that test.  I got the job because I myself am a first class test taker, it's a gift. lol.  I also taught Args (Arguments) for wannabee Lawyers taking the LSAT, and all sections of the MCAT for wannabee Doctors.  In fact I'm the only person I know of who taught all of those tests for TPR. 🙂  So take it from me, this survey is measuring exactly what I set out to measure here.  That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement though, and based on responses and criticisms so far dropped on, I may do a follow up of this later on.


One criticism which has popped up in text responses so far is WHY did we not include Nuclear Energy as a Renewable energy resource?  This one I will answer now, so I don't get more of the same critique in the text fields as more responses roll in.  There are several reasons for this. First off is that strictly speaking fissionable material that can be mined up is not infinite, so this is not renewable.  Even with breeder reactors, eventually this will run out, although it might take quite some time.  Then you have the spent fuel problem and the waste generated by these plants.  Although in THEORY you might make such waste benign through further nuclear processing and reactions, such a method has not been implemented anywhere, and poisonous spent fuel continues to accumulate everywhere that nuclear reactors are running.  Third is that although some projected forms of Nuclear energy such as Thorium Reactors are claimed to be safe and clean, no such reactor has been built to date to demonstrate even on small scale that it can be run economically.  So all in all, to date Nuclear energy does not appear to be renewable, but rather presents its own existential threat to the environment due to the waste problems it has.


Next Week or the week after, depending on the Survey Sample size we will present the results here on the Diner for further discussion, and we will keep the survey open after that to see if the discussion materially affects the total numbers for any category. You can't change your answers from your first submission, but if the discussion materially affects your choices, you can make a second submission. Put a “#2” in the beginning of the email field along with your email address if you submitted one, and I will filter the second set. Or I may just duplicate the whole survey to get a whole new sample. Or I may filter the data by submission date.  One way or the other, I will try to sort this out.


We did a "pre-release" of the survey in the last week, dropping links on Cassandra's Legacy, Our Finite World, Economic Undertow and various Reddit Subs as well as on the Diner Forum to get some initial readings on what the zeitgeist is out there as far as RE Questions go.  As of this publication, we currently have 121 respondents so far, which is not a bad sample size to begin with, but hopefully we can expand it some from this.


I'm not going to publish the current stats on answers to the the substantive questions from this sample, because that would skew answers from people who have not yet responded.  However, I will drop down here some of the early Demographics on the respondents.

survey-RE-education-1 The most ASTOUNDING one so far is the Formal Education level of the respondents, it is extraordinarily high.  14% of respondents have Doctorate Level education, 29% with Masters level.  This compared to a general population level of 3% Doctorate and 12% Masters or above.  So by NO MEANS is this a Random Sample!  lol.


You can look at this as a Good or Bad thing depending on your perspective.  If you consider that getting opinions from mostly well educated people is a good thing, then a survey which draws in mostly well educated people in responses is good.  If you would rather have a general cross section of the population at large, then such a survey is not valid for that population. A disappointing (though not unexpected) demographic so far is the number of Females who have responded.  Not unexpected because the collapse blogosphere is heavily weighted toward males, so there just aren't that many females reading this stuff to be able to get them to post up their opinions.  A suggestion I have to remedy this problem is for male respondents to the survey to coax females they know into filling it out.  Your mom, wife, girlfriend etc.  Transgender people self identifying as female are also welcome to check this box! 🙂  Or you can choose the "other" selection (nobody has picked that yet).


The rest of the Demographic questions are coming out distributed nicely, particularly the Age Demographic which is almost a perfect Bell Curve at the moment, though this has fluctuated some.  In any event, there are substantial responses in all categories besides <18 or >70 to parse out opinions by age.  Global distribution is weighted heavily to North America as to be expected given the Diner is an English language blog based in NA, but substantial contribution from Europe as well since this is where Ugo's blog Cassandra's Legacy is based in Italy.  It's been holding pretty steady at 55% North America, 30% Europe, 10% Oz & NZ and the rest everywhere else.


The next question you face when analyzing such statistics is their VALIDITY across the population you sample.  Across the entire population of the earth at around 7.2B people right now, this survey has virtually no statistical significance at all!  However, that is not the population being sampled here.  This population is mainly those who consider energy/collapse questions and regularly participate in net discussions on these topics.  How BIG is that population?  Well, I have been doing this biz for almost a decade now, and my estimate on the population size for people who both are aware of the eenrgy problems AND regularly haunt the websites concerned with this topic is around 50,000.  I get that number because for a variety of reasons I know what the subscription numbers are for the largest sites concerned with the topic.


So, if you take the current Sample Size of ~100 and the estimate of the total population you are sampling as 50,000, what is the Validity of this survey with those numbers?  For  a Population size of 50,000 with a Confidence Level of 95% and a Margin of Error of 10%, we need 96 respondents to the survey, which we have ALREADY exceeded!  Plug the numbers in on Survey Monkey if you don't believe me. lol


I really don't think we need a greater Confidence interval than this, so the main thing a bigger Sample Size will do is to increase the total size of population that sample is valid for.  I expect by the time this survey has accumulated  maximum responses that we will easily have a 99% confidence interval on the results for a population size of 50K.  I only do this statsitical shit because I constantly get  hammered when I do surveys they are not "scientific" enough.  The only criticism that beats "your question and answer choices SUCK!" when you do a survey is how "scientific" it is and what validity it has.  lol.  You can easily tell using CFS principles what is going on though, you don't really need to do the math.


Remember though, for surveys to have good validity and make them tough to deny, they need a good Sample Size! So get as many people as you can to fill it out!  This is particularly important if you want to parse the data based on different demographic parameters, which is quite interesting already. Everybody who drops an email addy on the survey will get a copy of the complete dataset (less the emails and website referrals) to do their own analysis.  If you do undertake such a dissection, let me know and I will publish your analysis.  A real nice one to look at is the difference in results between males and females.  Parsing by education level and age also is quite interesting.


At current pace, I'll probably have enough numbers for a publication next week of results, but I may wait 2 weeks on this depending on what the stream is and the decay rate in responses.


Thanks to all who have contributed to the survey so far, and for the rest of you, TAKE THE SURVEY NOW!

Collapse Cafe 8/23/2015: TSHTF IV Futurology

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Audio Only Podcast:

Well, we certainly timed this Vidcast well! 🙂

It's a marathon between the 3 parts we got recorded, we skipped over Part 3 to record at a later date on Climate & Geopolitics.  Part 4 here focuses on Economics,  Part 1 was on Energy and Part II on Economics.

All 3 parts are currently up on the Collapse Cafe You Tube Channel.  We will hopefully record Part III at a later date.

Thanks to all the participants, Nicole Foss, Gail Tverberg, Steve Ludlum, Tom Lewis, Norman Pagett, Ugo Bardi & my co-host Monsta.


Muskular Magic

From the keyboard of James Howard Kunstler
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Originally Published on Clusterfuck Nation May 11, 2015
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Elon Musk, Silicon Valley’s poster-boy genius replacement for the late Steve Jobs, rolled out his PowerWall battery last week with Star Wars style fanfare, doing his bit to promote and support the delusional thinking that grips a nation unable to escape the toils of techno-grandiosity. The main delusion: that we can “solve” the problems of techno-industrial society with more and better technology.

The South African born-and-raised Musk is surely better known for founding Tesla Motors, maker of the snazzy all-electric car. The denizens of Silicon Valley are crazy about the Tesla. There is no greater status trinket in Northern California, where the fog of delusion cloaks the road to the future. They believe, as Musk himself often avers, that Tesla cars “don’t burn hydrocarbons.” That statement is absurd, of course, and Musk, who holds a degree in physics from Penn, must blush when he says that. After all, you have to plug it in and charge somewhere from the US electric grid.

Only 6 percent of US electric power comes from “clean” hydro generation. Another 20 percent is nuclear. The rest is coal (48 percent) and natural gas (21 percent) with the remaining sliver coming from “renewables” and oil. (The quote marks on “renewables” are there to remind you that they probably can’t be manufactured without the support of a fossil fuel economy). Anyway, my point is that the bulk of US electricity comes from burning hydrocarbons, and then there is the nuclear part which is glossed over because the techno-geniuses and politicians of America have no idea how they are going to de-commission our aging plants, and no idea how to safely dispose of the spent fuel rod inventory simply lying around in collection pools. This stuff is capable of poisoning the entire planet and we know it.

The PowerWall roll out highlighted the “affordability” of the sleek lithium battery at $3,500 per unit. The average cluck watching Musk’s TED-like performance on the web was supposed to think he could power his home with it. Musk left out a few things. Such as: you need the rooftop solar array to feed the battery. Figure another $25,000 to $40,000 for that, depending on whether they are made in China (poor quality) or Germany, or in the USA (and installation is both laborious and expensive). Also consider that you need a charge controller and inverter to manage the electric flow and convert direct current (DC) from the sun into usable alternating current (AC) for your house — another $3,500. So, the cost of hanging a solar electric system on your house with all its parts is more like fifty grand.

What happens when the solar panels, battery, etc., reach the end of their useful lives, say 25 years or so, when there is no more fossil fuel (or an industry capable of providing it economically). How will you fabricate the replacement parts? By then the techno-wizards will have supposedly “come up with” a magic energy rescue remedy. Stand by on that, and consider the possibility that you will be disappointed with how it works out.

What gets me about Tesla’s various products and activities is that, when all is said and done, they are meant to extend the fatal rackets of contemporary life, especially car dependency and the suburban development pattern. Car dependency can and probably will fail on the financial basis, not on the question of how you run the car. The main economic problem we face is the end of growth of the kind we’re used to, the kind that generates real capital and enables bank lending. It is already happening and has led to fewer loans for fewer qualified borrowers. It will also lead to the end of government’s ability to pay for fixing the elaborate hierarchy of paved highways, roads, and streets that the cars have to run on. Imagine the psychic pain of the Silicon Valley billionaire driving his $87,000 Tesla P85D down a freeway that the State of California hasn’t been able to repair in five years.

James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.


Building Stupidity

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Aired on the Doomstead Diner on May 1, 2014


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…Not a day goes by anymore where you can’t find something supremely stupid going on somewhere in the world. Today it was the newz that the Saudi Sheiks are breaking ground on the newest tallest building to be in the world, the Kingdom Tower.

About the only thing positive I can say about this monstrosity is that at least it doesn’t look like a giant PENIS like the Chinese have been erecting lately, this one looks more like a giant hypodermic needle….

Chinese Architectural Genius in Action

Saudi Arabian Architectural Genius in Action,width-640,resizemode-4/1-kingdom-tower-saudi-arabia.jpg

For the rest, LISTEN TO THE RANT!


Turning Electricity Into Food

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Cassandra’s Legacy on November 7, 2013


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Our paper published in the “Journal of Cleaner Production” where we discuss the possibility of using renewable electric energy to power all the phases of the agricultural process. For a copy of this paper, send a message to ugo.bardi(whirlywhirl)

You know that when energy in agriculture is discussed, the paradigm is energy production in the form of biofuels. But the idea of biofuels manufactured from agricultural products is monumentally wrong. Modern food production depends nearly completely on fossil fuels: agriculture is a consumer of energy, not a producer.

The problem is that gradual depletion is making fossil fuels more and more expensive. And higher prices of fuels immediately generate higher food prices.  It has been happening and it is a big problem especially for the poor people of the world (graph below from FAO data)

So, how are we going to do? We need energy for agriculture, there is no doubt about that. To obtain this energy we could go back to human work and pack animals, as in the past. It is the concept of the “50 million farmers” (in the US alone) proposed by Richard Heinberg. But the work of the farmer of old was anything but pleasant and not even very efficient. Pre-industrial agriculture produced only a modest surplus at the expense of the suffering of a large number of people. There is no doubt that the coming of modern, mechanized agriculture was seen everywhere as a great advance in freeing people from the slavery of the heavy manual work of farming. (Image below (1971) courtesy of Stefan Landsberger)

So, can we eliminate fossil fuels in agriculture without having to go back to the back-breaking practices of the past? Myself and some colleagues started asking this question already some years ago and that led us to study the idea of using renewable energy (NOT intended as biofuels) to power agricultural machinery. We noted that modern renewable technologies (mainly wind and solar) produce electricity as output and that transforming electric power into fuels is expensive and inefficient. So, the idea we developed was to use directly electricity to power agriculture.

The result was the “Ramses project” that led us to develop a prototype agricultural vehicle that wasn’t just a tractor, but a multipurpose vehicle for a variety of tasks, including energy storage (in the foto below, from left to right, Toufic El Asmar, Paolo Pasquini, and Ugo Bardi).

The Ramses vehicle was a success as a prototype, and it has been used in various farm activity for a few years, first in Lebanon and now in Italy. It taught us several things; one is that, making the appropriate calculations, today, electric mechanization in agriculture is still marginally more expensive than conventional, fossil fuel based, engines. Because of this marginally higher costs, farmers still use conventional engines and the Ramses is still just a prototype.

But things are gradually changing and, eventually, because of both depletion oan climate change, we will have to “wean” agriculture away from fossil fuels. This idea led us to a more comprehensive examination of the agricultural process. If the Ramses demonstrated that we can use electric power for many tasks that require mechanical energy, it is also true that agriculture needs much more: it needs fertilizers, pesticides, transportation, refrigeration, and more. Can we perform all those tasks using the electric energy produced by renewable sources?

That is what our recent paper on the “Journal of Cleaner Production” discusses (authors U. Bardi. T. El Asmar and A. Lavacchi, vol. 19, pp. 2034-2048 – 203). It is an extended examination on how energy is used in agriculture and how, in the future, we could obtain this energy from renewable sources, moving away from fossil fuels while at the same time maintaining the high productivity of modern agriculture.

The results? As you can imagine, it will not be an easy task; but it is not an impossible one, either. As modern renewables (wind and solar) increase in efficiency and come at lower costs, it is perfectly possible to think of integrating them with the agricultural process, first reducing and then fully eliminating the need of locally using fossil fuels.

Then, of course, agricultural production is not just based on the local use of fossil fuels: fertilizers, for instance, are produced on large industrial plants. These plants can be powered by renewable energy and it turns out that, for instance, there exist known methods for using electricity to generate ammonia as fertilizer without the need of using methane or hydrogen as feedstock. Even so, even abundant energy can’t solve all problems, for instance the gradual depletion of mineral phosphate resources. For that, only the careful management of what we have can maintain the availability of the necessary phosphate based fertilizers

So, the end result of our study is that modern renewable energy can be a tremendous help to agriculture, but not for the wasteful and unsustainable agriculture of today. It is possible to turn electricity into food and we don’t need to go back to the back-breaking practices of old. But we need to imagine and build an agriculture that doesn’t destroy the resources it uses.

Podcast: Graham Barnes- Renewable Energy & Finance

Off the microphones of Graham Barnes, RE and Monsta666

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Aired on the Doomstead Diner on September 11, 2013


Discuss at the Podcast Table inside the Diner

In this Podcast with Graham Barnes from FEASTA, we discuss aspects of Finance as applied to Renewable Energy systems, and Investment Models for developing more resilient systems.  Our Podcast was inspired by Graham’s article Designer Currencies and Behavior Change you can read in full over on FEASTA.

At Feasta, we started using the term ‘Designer Currency’ in 2011, partly as a reaction to what we thought were unsatisfactory adjectives (complementary, alternative, community), but mainly to underline the fact that no currency is a ‘neutral facilitator of exchange’ as imagined by orthodox economics, and that therefore currencies can be legitimately designed to promote specific outcomes, values and behaviours. We named our Facebook Currency Activists Community accordingly in January 2012 [1] and sketched out some early thinking in ‘The Lot of the Currency Designer’ a paper presented to the International Social Transformation Conference in Split in July 2012 [2].

A delegate to the recent Community Currencies conference in The Hague proposed that changing behaviour should be the ‘fourth function of money’, so it may be timely to explore the implications of this line of thinking a little further.

This article considers three particular questions: i) How are values implicitly embedded in a currency? ii) If objectives are made more explicit, who defines those values and how are they validated? iii) What type of explicit behaviours might currencies reasonably promote? and then revisits the core function of means of exchange in the light of this analysis.

Part II of the Podcast will focus more on alternative Currencies which might evolve over time, and the various functions of Money as a Store of Value and Exchange Medium, and will be available here on the Diner in the next couple of weeks.


The Elephant in the Sustainability Room

Off the keyboards of Monsta666 & A. G. Gelbert

Discuss this article at the Favourite Dishes Table inside the Diner

Often I hear argument that if we deploy various renewable energy solutions then our modern industrial society can transition to a sustainable society. While many of these renewable solutions do indeed provide better outcomes than the current fossil fuel paradigm they will not – on their own – make our economy any more sustainable. The reason this is the case is because of the issue of perpetual economic growth that our economy demands which is largely (but not solely) driven by our debt based currency system. Until this fundamental issue of growth is tackled then achieving sustainability becomes an impossible task.

In the dialogue below is an exchange between me and fellow Diner and moderator agelbert who is one of the strongest advocates we have in the Diner in renewable energy solutions. Just to be clear, even though I do not see renewable energy as the ultimate solution to providing a sustainable environment this is NOT an argument against renewable energy. Moreover, I am of the belief that a technological solution is possible in the process of reverse engineering into a sustainable economy provided the technology is deployed in a sensible manner and is managed properly. For this reason I do support agelbert and his endeavours to getting the word out on the renewable story. However what I think is equally significant with the message agelbert projects is one of HOPE.

His zeal, commitment and pleasant nature offers people hope and in a world that faces so many challenges, some of which could well be fatal, hope is a powerful force on society and its effects cannot be neglected. One only needs to look at the incidents in Greece with people succumbing to drugs or crime in Egypt to see what happens when people lose hope. It is our duty as Diners to offer people hope and not go full doom Guy McPherson style. We must fight until the bitter end in offering a better tomorrow for future generations. We cannot save everyone but we must to strive to save as many as we can!

For this reason we must offer hope to people for without hope there is only anger and when people get angry they become worse than unproductive; they become positively destructive. So because of this agelbert offers a good service in a similar vain to Eustace Conway by offering an alternative living arrangement to Business As Usual (BAU). All such efforts must be supported and I encourage Diners to do the same. On this note by hitting the Donate button for the Diner you will be supporting the SUN project which is another attempt in escaping the trap that is BAU.

Anyhow, I am digressing here and to back to the original topic on hand I will post this debate me and agelbert had about how to create a sustainable economy in this planet:

agelbert said:

JMG has a better handle on the most probable future in the next 50 years or so but I think he engages in hyperbole by classifying all of us techno-weenies as technology clinging denialists who don’t understand the laws of thermodynamics (I.E. he WRONGLY claims we need too much energy just to build the renewable infrastructure so it just can’t be done, won’t be done, the Archdruid has spoken and us chillen need to cut our losses and flush toilets and get with the program of getting used to having less beer and goodies).

I certainly agree with him that the rationalizations bordering on gymnastic pretzel logic that come from people when their predicted apocalyptic imminent scenarios don’t materialize on schedule is worthy of ridicule. Humans have an awful time letting go of ownership bias, whether it be a thing no longer worth what they thought it was, or an idea or a prediction that didn’t pan out.

Clever fellows like JMG try to sound like they are above it all dispassionately observing the poor slobs tied to faddish ideas, religions, pro-environment mantras, new age predictions or whatever. He’s NOT.

As a matter of fact, he is making the very mistake that he accuses others of. He sees any hybrid approach to solving our energy problem by combining a limited amount of fossil fuels with renewable energy technology during a transition phase as impossible.

I must disagree with this. I can certainly agree that renewable infrastructure does have its benefits and should be more aggressively pursued but I think we must recognise that renewables are not sustainable on a BAU basis. What we have to understand is BAU is based on a debt-based currency system and these currencies can only remain viable under the condition of perpetual growth. Perpetual growth is impossible unless we have infinite resources, infinite energy and bottomless sinks where pollution can be contained. To most people it is pretty self-evident we do not have infinite resources but on the matter of energy we must remember that infinite energy is only possible if the laws of thermodynamics are violated.

It is this requirement of perpetual growth that makes any energy platform (even the illuminatti’s wet dream of fusion energy) unsustainable as you will either reach limits in the amount of resources available, energy or the amount of pollution produced. Growth will end due to one of these stocks becoming a limiting factor. In other words growth is limited under the principle of Liebig’s law of minimum which states that total production is limited by the factor that is in most limited supply in the production process. This may either be resources, energy or pollution and so all these factors must be considered and managed if we wish to maintain a sustainable society. This is a basic fact and we must STRESS that the first law of sustainability is this:

Growth in population and/or growth in the rates of consumption CANNOT BE SUSTAINED!

Until we address the issue of economic growth and the continued rise of consumption then all talk about sustainability is futile. Alternate energy systems such as renewable energy are only viable if they do not operate under the paradigm of constant growth. Now this isn’t an argument against renewable energy and I agree with you they must be pushed but I do think a big part of this sustainability debate must centre on the fact that economic growth must end.

At the end of the day we need to recognise that our economic and environmental crises are – at their core – the result of man’s behaviour on planet Earth. Until we change our behavioural patterns then all technology does is postpone the day of reckoning. I say this because humans have a predisposition to increasing their population and consuming their resources as quickly as possible as they wish to pursue more prosperous lifestyles. This disposition towards population growth coupled with increased consumption of resources results in humans utilising technology and energy as an enabler of resources. As more sophisticated technology is developed; the resource base available to man increases; this increase in available resources allows a rise in living standards. Now if man simply stopped population growth and material standards at a certain level then they could enjoy the increased productivity this new technology would bring. Unfortunately it never works out that way because as living conditions improve human population increases until people live at a subsistence level at this new technological level.

The best example I can offer of this phenomenon at work would be the green revolution. The green revolution caused food production to rise rapidly resulting in food prices declining rapidly. This cheap food enabled human population to grow rapidly, so much so that man has become dependent on this unsustainable food production system at even a subsistence level in many places across the globe. In fact if current populations continue to rise and people move towards a more resource consumptive diet i.e. eating more meat that requires more resources to produce then even this system cannot even sustain future populations at a subsistence level. This creates pressure in developing another “technical solution” such as GM food or some other monstrosity. Even if we assume this technical solution could deliver its promised returns and had no blowback (I know this is never the case but for arguments let us suppose this is the case). What would happen then? Populations and consumption would just rise again until we hit the limits of this new technical solution.

This pressure of population and consumption rises creates the need for technical solutions and because of this nothing really changes if taken on a long-term basis. We are on a constant hamster wheel to hell unless we change the way we behave. Man has a behavioural problem and NOT a technical problem. If we want to develop a manifesto that is truly sustainable we need to include some part that addresses population control and control of consumption. Doesn’t necessarily have to be direct eugenic style of population control nor do we have to set real limits to consumption. You can limit consumption by rewarding society in ways other than increasing material consumption. Some means of population is required and I would be interested in reading how the Japanese maintained their relative steady state economy during the Edo period where population was maintained around 30 million people for hundreds of years. This move towards a steady state economy that recognised the need to preserve the environment never gained traction in the “enlightened” European countries  hence the push for empire building and later fossil fuel solutions to keep the hamster wheel spinning faster and faster to support growing populations/consumption patterns. Off course greed and other vices made all these issues worse. And the pigs and parasites have made things immeasurably worse and they must be punished accordingly.

agelbert said:

No kidding! When did I say it NEEDED to be sustained? Population growth is going tits up ALL OVER THE PLANET! Check the stats. The top priority is to clean up the environment while getting off fossil fuels. Dealing with population pressures is secondary and, as I just mentioned, is less of a problem in numerical projections every year. If you want to get all flustered about how many humans there are, well go right ahead but SHOW ME SOME FACTS!

Whilst I would agree you never said BAU needed to be sustained; in fact I believe you are actually an advocate of ending BAU like me. However the reason I did mention this point was because I feel you do not stress the fact that business as usual can only work on the basis of continued growth. I feel this point really needs to be HAMMERED home if sustainability is the name of the game. In fact by stressing the madness of BAU with it requirements for constant economic growth and the inevitable end-points this mindless pursuit would entail (such as resource collapse, environmental catastrophe and global bankruptcy) people will become more agreeable to alternate means of living which can include renewable energy systems as you advocate. When promoting a sustainable lifestyle we got to understand that renewables by themselves are not going to deliver a sustainable lifestyle if the growth side of the equation is not tackled. What we need to do is address this aspect but that does not mean renewable energy cannot be part of the package.

But you wanted facts so let me offer you some. The rate of human population growth is indeed declining as you say but that does mean population is declining. It is still increasing but the rate of increase is decreasing. If we are to believe the figures provided by the UN Population Fund then world population will hit 9 billion by 2043. Like you have already alluded to the time to reach each successive billion from here on out will rise with the next rise of 1 billion taking 14 years while the one after that will take 18 years followed by 40 years for the final billion. So according to the UN world population should peak at just over 10 billion souls. I have ENORMOUS doubts this will actually transpire but those are the figures the UN currently projects. In any case though the fact of the matter is human population is still increasing so the problem is getting worse.

Looking at your article you open with the following sentence:

agelbert said:

Why the 1% is responsible for more than 80% of humanity’s carbon footprint and why Homo sapiens is doomed unless the 1% lead the way in a sustainable life style.

While this sentence is true this fact does not cover the whole issue here and there are several problems with it. As I mentioned in my previous post there will be several potential limiting factors that will make further economic growth impossible. The example you highlight represents mainly C02 emissions which as we all know is a pollutant. Increasing pollution will wreck the environment and if it is severe enough will cause irreversible damage and will limit economic growth. However we need to remember that consumption of resources is also increasing at an exponential rate and I would figure these consumption rates are not the primary result of what the 1% consume. After all there is only so much a person may eat or drink. Posted below are rates of consumption of food and water. However look up the consumption of fish and other various commodities and all these will exhibit exponential growth and are likely to continue posting exponential if the economy does not collapse.

On top of these resource depletion issues the other problem comes from the implicit assumption that if we somehow eliminated the 1% who committed the 80% of the emissions then we would reduce carbon emissions by 80%. This is unlikely to happen as a new 1% (the Orkin Men perhaps?) would takeover. Why would this happen you say? This is because one of the emergent properties of our economic systems is to reward people who can maximise their consumption of resources. If you are clever and can find a means of extracting more resources then you will be given a good paycheck. In addition to this we need to remember money buys you not only POWER but STATUS also. If a person has lots of money they are deemed to be a “successful” member of society and people will look favourably upon you and tend to ignore mistakes, character flaws more easily and may even ignore FATAL defects if you are rich enough. Just ask Corzine for proof of this! You see this all the time with the most powerful and successful getting away with murder. All these factors act as powerful social cues that provide strong positive reinforcement to pursuing a lifestyle that maximises consumption as such behaviour is actively rewarded from a financial, social AND mating standpoint. Considering one of the primary objectives of all animals is to reproduce then this effect cannot really be understated. I feel even in your article you hinted at this point (please correct if I have misinterpreted something here):

agelbert said:

The chimps engage in rather brutal wars with other chimp tribes where the victors set about to kill and eat very young chimps of the vanquished tribe. This is clearly a strategy to gain some evolutionary advantage by killing off the offspring of the competition.

agelbert said:

I repeat, excessive aggression or same sex sexual activity as a dominance display is a downside to the “strong sex drive” successful evolutionary characteristic.

agelbert said:

This “downside”, when combined with a large brain capable of advanced tool making, can cause the destruction of other species through rampant predation and poisoning of life form resources in the biosphere.

I would agree with these points and would also agree with the viewpoint that our increased sized brains have meant we have exploited our environment to an extent no other animal has been capable off and in a way our evolution has lead us into a bit of a dead end. I also agree with the bit you mention how more complex organisms tend to be less resilient as they tend to sacrifice resilience for increased efficiency in a particular environment. If the parameters of the environment were to change sufficiently then the organism’s capability to survive will decline more rapidly than a simpler more resilient life form like the bacteria you describe. This I feel only applies on a species level however as it is possible for there to be complex ecosystems that is highly resilient. This is possible because complex ecosystems can consist of a complex web or interdependent organisms that forms a very resilient network of animals so we must be specific on what level we are talking about when bringing up the efficiency/resilience debate.

Going back to my earlier point though, the big issue we have with the current BAU system is the destructive behavioural patterns that it actively promotes namely excessive consumption. If we wish for people to lower per capita energy consumption more rapidly we need to devise a means where lower capita is rewarded and status can be conferred through means other than greater material consumption. Mating can offer a strong incentive to a certain pattern of behaviour and this picture demonstrates a good example of this:

Why the dimorphism in the pheasants? It takes more energy to maintain a larger body; you become more conspicuous and obvious to predators with those bright colours. On top of that escape will become more difficult from an energy prospective as not only is there more mass to move but it is likely the pheasant will have run that bit further to escape the notice of predators. All these evolutionary costs are acceptable however because the result is more mating. If animals can change their composition by this degree on the basis of increased mating opportunities then imagine what we can do if we rewarded people with status by developing the right habits! Got any ideas how to go about this? 😉 I don’t think this point can be understated, BAU rewards destructive behaviours and if we want sustainability we need to tackle this issue otherwise there will always be a 1% to take over the last one.

agelbert said:

Look what the biologist in Africa has discovered and PROVED! Desertification can ONLY be prevented by INCREASING THE SIZE OF THE HERDS MASSIVELY! ??? Can you handle that?  This is exactly the opposite of what science had always believed!.:icon_scratch: It’s there in my channel. The man is an eminent authority on the environment. You can reject his counterintuitive FACTS but they are still going to be facts. :icon_mrgreen:

Is there a lesson there for human populations? Maybe, maybe not, but it does make you think. 😉

This is the case that the biologist killed the elephants but unfortunately the study was flawed because they missed an even bigger ELEPHANT in the room which was man being the main culprit. Was this due to overpopulation or due to the excessive consumption lifestyles of pigmen wishing to gain more profit? This could be a matter of contention however what cannot be disputed is that man has been creating the larger deserts by either farming the land too extensively or through excessive emissions of various pollutants most likely C02 and other greenhouse gases.

agelbert said:

Just to avoid arguments, lets say you are right about the population issue, can you get past that for a moment to consider the viability of a techno-fix? THAT’S my main beef with JMG. I know you want us to “reduce” ourselves because our carbon footprint is “unsustainable”. I’ve already dropped mine considerably for over 20 years! Tell me how many miles YOU drive each year and how many square feet YOUR house has (I drive less than 1,200 miles a YEAR and live in 980 sq, ft.).

First of all, congrats on reducing your C02 emissions! Good work and keep up the good fight! As for me, I don’t personally own a car so my mileage in terms of actual driving is flat out zero. However I do get lifts and the miles travelled in those journeys would probably amount to something like 1,200 miles per year. Reason for not driving is I am not going to spend lots of money financing an automobile. In addition to that I would have to pay around $9 for one gallon of gas not to mention over $3000 dollars a year on insurance for owning the said car. With my limited income this investment makes little sense so I depend on public transport and other good old fashioned walking. My worst C02 emissions likely come from the fact I travel on a plane about 2 or 3 times a year.

Back to your question however: I do think that the human population has to drop considerably especially if we consider the blowback that will come from climate change and the likely other environmental disasters that are to come such as nuclear meltdowns due to a breakdown of JIT supply lines. Because of these unpredictable events it is hard to determine what population will be sustainable exactly. It will not be 7 billion however especially when the rate of fossil fuel extraction declines.

As I said in my previous post; technology enables humans to increase their resource base by increasing productivity. By applying renewable energy systems the carrying capacity of humans can be increased so renewables can help. However it is hard again to say what the carrying capacity will be. You see, in my eyes total consumption rates is a product of population and per capita consumption. If you wish people to have a higher standard of living then the carrying capacity of society must be lower. If you want to increase carrying capacity then you must sacrifice per capita consumption. These sorts of decisions can only really be made on a local and not global level.

If a society wishes to work on a sustainable basis then they must decide what balance they require in terms of optimal population size and per capita consumption. On this note I don’t think it makes sense to maximise population as I feel it is more important to focus on QUALITY and NOT quantity of life (BAU and various religions seem to promote the latter). To me, quality and happiness of the people in the community is the thing we must strive to maximise and to do this we need to insure that nearly all people in society can meet their basic needs comfortably i.e. living comfortably above the subsistence level. It should be noted that on a general historical basis in the absence of rigorous checks on population there will be a tendency for the population to rise until most members can only survive on a subsistence level given the current level of technology deployed. To maximise happiness it is my personal opinion that populations must be kept below this natural limit. I can understand perfectly well if our views on this are matter are different as it is a highly contentious issue. I imagine the final decision made would vary quite markedly for each community.

Saying all that you don’t want population to be too low as that will mean that the amount of per capita consumption will become too great and too high an income will make people more susceptible to greed, other vices not to mention unequal power issues between different local communities which will pose a threat to maintaining a sustainable economy over a larger region. As always there needs to be a balance and what you deem as optimal will vary so I think it is impossible to give an exact figure. I do hope you see where I am coming from in this however. Again though, carbon emissions are only part of the story here as we need to consider resources, pollutants and energy as separate components when considering issues of sustainability. To achieve a truly sustainable economy all these components need to be addressed and we cannot simply put our focus on pollution.

The Third Industrial Revolution

Off the keyboard of Guy McPherson

Published on Nature Bats Last on November 17,  2012


Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner

As Derrick Jensen points out, this “culture as a whole and most of its members are insane.” I continue to be surprised at the number of people who believe in infinite growth on a finite planet. I continue to be amazed at the number of people who believe a politician cares about them, and that their favorite politician will act in their best interests. I continue to be surprised at the number of people who actually believe in the political process. I continue to be amazed at the number of people who support civilization, knowing it is killing us all. I’m even more surprised, though, at the number of people who claim ignorance about the costs and consequences of industrial civilization.

As pointed out by French author and Nobelist in literature André Gide: “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” So, here I go, saying it again.

Apparently I’m a very slow learner. It’s a bad, sad time. I hate this culture.

It’s worse than all of the above, though. There are a significant number of people who believe we can continue the omnicide, and that doing so is a good idea. Consider, for example, proponents of the Third Industrial Revolution.

The five pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution infrastructure are listed below. After pasting a brief description directly from Wikipedia (in italics), I dismantle each of the pillars.

1. Shifting to Renewable Energy: Renewable forms of energy — solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, ocean waves, and biomass — make up the first of the five pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution. While these energies still account for a small percentage of the global energy mix, they are growing rapidly as governments mandate targets and benchmarks for their widespread introduction into the market and their falling costs make them increasingly competitive.

“Renewable” sources of energy are derivatives of oil. Oil is the master material. The availability and price of oil control every other “resource.” I’ve pointed out the absurdity and hopelessness of switching the extra-oil sources here, here, here, here, here, and here (in chronological order).

2. Buildings as Power Plants: New technological breakthroughs make it possible, for the first time, to design and construct buildings that create all of their own energy from locally available renewable energy sources, allowing us to reconceptualize the future of buildings as “power plants”. The commercial and economic implications are vast and far reaching for the real estate industry and, for that matter, Europe and the world. In 25 years from now, millions of buildings — homes, offices, shopping malls, industrial and technology parks — will be constructed to serve as both “power plants” and habitats. These buildings will collect and generate energy locally from the sun, wind, garbage, agricultural and forestry waste, ocean waves and tides, hydro and geothermal — enough energy to provide for their own power needs as well as surplus energy that can be shared.

First, see my comment above regarding “renewable” energy sources. They are a well-promoted myth. Second, consider if you will, the reality of our collective situation 25 years from now. If human beings persist on this planet — and that’s a significant if, based on the various paths by which we are vigorously pursuing human extinction — then it’s difficult to imagine a scenario that includes an industrial economy at the scale of the globe. We can have an industrial economy or we can have a living planet, but we cannot have both over another quarter century.

3. Deploying Hydrogen and other storage technologies in every building and throughout the infrastructure to store intermittent energies. To maximize renewable energy and to minimize cost it will be necessary to develop storage methods that facilitate the conversion of intermittent supplies of these energy sources into reliable assets. Batteries, differentiated water pumping, and other media, can provide limited storage capacity. There is, however, one storage medium that is widely available and can be relatively efficient. Hydrogen is the universal medium that “stores” all forms of renewable energy to assure that a stable and reliable supply is available for power generation and, equally important, for transport.

As a carrier of energy — but definitely not a source — hydrogen is neither stable nor reliable. The notion of stability is dismissed with a single word: Hindenburg. The hype about hydrogen is extreme and extremely ridiculous.

Transporting hydrogen is prohibitively expensive and requires distillates of crude oil. In addition, automakers will not make hydrogen fuel-cell cars until the hydrogen infrastructure is in place, and the infrastructure will not appear until there are a sufficient number of fuel-cell cars on the road.

4. Using Internet technology to transform the power grid of every continent into an energy sharing intergrid that acts just like the Internet. The reconfiguration of the world’s power grid, along the lines of the internet, allowing businesses and homeowners to produce their own energy and share it with each other, is just now being tested by power companies in Europe. The new smart grids or intergrids will revolutionize the way electricity is produced and delivered. Millions of existing and new buildings — homes, offices, factories—will be converted or built to serve as “positive power plants” that can capture local renewable energy — solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, hydro, and ocean waves — to create electricity to power the buildings, while sharing the surplus power with others across smart intergrids, just like we now produce our own information and share it with each other across the Internet.

Never mind the endless hopium associated with producing “renewable” energy for more than seven billion people. Never mind the war-based industrial economy of the world’s sole remaining superpower. If we’re counting on technology currently under testing in Europe, we’re also assuming Europe will exist as a political entity for a long time. We’re also assuming Europeans will continue to play nice with each other as well as people in other countries. The very idea of surplus power is being revealed as a horrifically bad joke as the Middle East and northern Africa come under daily attack from several more-industrialized nations.

5. Transitioning the transport fleet to electric, plug in and fuel cell vehicles that can buy and sell electricity on a smart continental interactive power grid. The electricity we produce in our buildings from renewable energy will also be used to power electric plug-in cars or to create hydrogen to power fuel cell vehicles. The electric plug in vehicles, in turn, will also serve as portable power plants that can sell electricity back to the main grid.

Car culture is a huge source of many of our worst problems. Cheering for the never-ending continuation of car culture is a death sentence for the living planet. In addition, as indicated above, transporting hydrogen is unsafe, expensive, and dependent upon distillates of crude oil. And then there’s that chicken-and-egg issue associated with construction of infrastructure to support hydrogen fuel-cell cars.

When these five pillars come together, they make up an indivisible technological platform — an emergent system whose properties and functions are qualitatively different from the sum of its parts. In other words, the synergies between the pillars create a new economic paradigm that can transform the world.

When these five pillars of sand come together, they make up an undistinguished pile of dysfunctional hopium — a pile of sand whose properties and functions are qualitatively and quantitatively irrelevant to the industrial economy. In other words, the synergies between the meaningless pillars create a new pile of false hope for those who wish to continue destroying the living world. Fortunately, the hopium is running out.

Contrary to conventional wisdom among civilized humans, we don’t need an industrial economy to survive. In fact, all evidence indicates the opposite is true, yet we keep cheering for this culture of death, cheering for continued destruction of all we need for our survival. Insanity has won, proving Ralph Waldo Emerson correct: “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”



Why Natural Gas isn’t Likely to be the World’s Energy Savior

Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg

Published on Our Finite World on October 17, 2012

Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner

We keep hearing about the many benefits of natural gas–how burning it releases less CO2 than oil or coal, and how it burns with few impurities, so does not have the pollution problems of coal. We also hear about the possibilities of releasing huge amounts of new natural gas supplies, through the fracking of shale gas. Reported reserves for natural gas also seem to be quite high, especially in the Middle East and the Former Soviet Union.

But I think that people who are counting on natural gas to solve the world’s energy problems are “counting their chickens before they are hatched”. Natural gas is a fuel that requires a lot of infrastructure in order for anything to “happen”. As a result, it needs a lot of up-front investment, and several years time delay. It also needs changes on the consumption side (requiring further investment) that will allow this natural gas to be used. If the cost is higher than competing fuels, this becomes a problem as well.

In many ways, natural gas consumption is captive to other things that are happening in the economy: an economy that is industrializing rapidly will easily be able to consume more natural gas, but an economy in decline will find it hard to scrape together funds for new ways of doing what was done previously, now with natural gas. Increased use of renewables seems to call for additional use of natural gas for balancing, but even this is not certain, because in many parts of the world, natural gas is a high-priced imported fuel.  Political instability, often linked to high oil and food prices, creates a poor atmosphere for new Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facilities, no matter how attractive the pricing may seem to be.

In the US, we have already “hit the wall” on how much natural gas can be absorbed into the system or used to offset imports. US natural gas production has been flat since November 2011, based on EIA data (Figure 1, below).

Figure 1. US Dry Natural Gas Production, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

Even with this level of production, and a large shift in electricity production from coal to natural gas,  natural gas is still on the edge of “maxing out” its storage system before winter hits (Figure 2, below).

Figure 2. US natural gas in storage, compared to five-year average. Figure prepared by US Energy Information Administration, Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report as of October 5, 2012.


World Natural Gas Production

The past isn’t the future, but it does give a little bit of understanding regarding what the underlying trends are.

Figure 3. World natural gas production, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

World natural gas production/consumption (Figure 3) has been increasing, recently averaging about 2.7% a year. If we compare natural gas to other energy sources, it has been second to coal in terms of the amount by which it has contributed to the total increase in world energy supplies in the last five years (Figure 4). This comparison is made by converting all amounts to “barrels of oil equivalent”, and computing the increase between 2006 and 2011.

Figure 4. Increase in energy supplied for the year 2011, compared to the year 2006, for various fuels, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

In order for natural gas to be an energy savior for the world, natural gas consumption would need to increase far more than 2.7% per year, and outdistance the increase in coal consumption each year. While a modest increase from past patterns is quite possible, I don’t expect a miracle from natural gas.

Natural Gas: What Has Changed?

The basic thing that has changed is that fracking now permits extraction of shale gas (in addition to other types of gas), if other conditions are met as well:

  1. Selling price is high enough (probably higher than for other types of natural gas produced)
  2. Water is available for fracking
  3. Governments permit fracking
  4. Infrastructure is available to handle the fracked gas

Even before the discovery of shale gas, reported world natural gas reserves were quite high relative to natural gas production (63.6 times 2011 production, according to BP). Reserves might theoretically be even higher, with additional shale gas discoveries.

In addition, the use of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) for export is also increasing, making it possible to ship previously “stranded” natural gas, such as that in Alaska. This further increases the amount of natural gas available to world markets.

What Stands in the Way of Greater Natural Gas Usage?

1. Price competition from coal. One major use for natural gas is making electricity. If locally produced coal is available, it likely will produce electricity more cheaply than natural gas. The reason shale gas recently could be sold for electricity production in the United States is because the selling price for natural gas dropped below the equivalent price for coal. The “catch” was that shale gas producers were losing money at this price (and have since dropped back their production). If the natural gas price increases enough for shale gas to be profitable, electricity production will again move back toward coal.

Many other parts of the world also have coal available, acting as a cap on the amount of fracked natural gas likely to be produced. A carbon tax might change this within an individual country, but those without such a tax will continue to prefer the lower-price product.

2. Growing internal natural gas use cuts into exports. This is basically the Exportland model issue, raised by Jeffrey Brown with respect to oil, but for natural gas. If we look at Africa’s natural gas production, consumption, and exports, this is what we see:

Figure 5. Africa natural gas production, consumption, and exports, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

In Africa, (mostly northern Africa, which exports to Europe and Israel), consumption has been rising fast enough that exports have leveled off and show signs of declining.

3. Political instability. Often, countries with large natural gas resources are ones with large oil resources as well. If oil production starts to drop off, and as a result oil export revenue drops off, a country is likely to experience political instability. A good example of this is Egypt.

Figure 6. Egypt’s oil production and consumption, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

No matter how much natural gas Egypt may have, it would not make sense for a company to put in an LNG train or more pipeline export capability, because the political situation is not stable enough. Egypt needs oil exports to fund its social programs. The smaller funding amount available from natural gas exports is not enough to make up that gap, so it is hard to see natural gas making up the gap, even if it were available in significant quantity.

Iran is a country with large natural gas reserves. It is reportedly looking into extracting natural gas for export. Again, we have a political stability issue. Here we have an international sanctions issue as well.

4. “Need the natural gas for myself later” view. A country (such as Egypt or the United States or Britain) that has been “burned” by declining oil production may think twice about exporting natural gas. Even if the country doesn’t need it now, there is a possibility that vehicles using natural gas could be implemented later, in their own country, thus helping to alleviate the oil shortage. Also, there are risks and costs involved with fracking, that they may not choose to incur, if the benefit is to go to exporters.

5. Cost of investment for additional natural gas consumption. In order to use more natural gas, considerable investment is needed. New pipelines likely need to be added. Homeowners and businesses may need to purchase gas-fired furnaces to raise demand. If it is decided to use natural gas vehicles, there is a need for the new vehicles themselves, plus service stations and people trained to fix the new vehicles. Additional natural gas storage may be needed as well. Additional industrial production is difficult to add, unless wages are low enough that the product being sold will be competitive on the world market.

Existing “pushes” toward better insulation have the effect of reducing the amount of natural gas used for heating homes and businesses, so work in the opposite direction. So do new techniques for making nitrogen-based fertilizer using coal, rather than using natural gas.

6. Touchy balance between supply and consumption. If additional production is added, but additional uses are not, we have already seen what happens in the United States. Storage facilities get overly full, the price of natural gas drops to unacceptably low levels, and operators scramble to cut back production.

The required balance between production and consumption is very “touchy”. It can be thrown off by only a few percent change in production or consumption. Thus an unusually warm winter, as the United States experienced last year, played a role in the overly full storage problem. A ramp up of production of only a few percent can also cause an out of balance situation. Unless a developer has multiple buyers for its gas, or a “take or pay” long-term contract, it risks the possibility that the gas that is has developed will not be wanted at an adequate price.

7. Huge upfront investment requirements. There are multiple requirements for investing in new shale gas developments. Each individual well costs literally millions of dollars to drill and frack. The cost will not be paid back for several years (or perhaps ever, if the selling price is not high enough), so debt financing is generally needed. If fracking is done, a good supply of water is needed. This is likely to be a problem in dry countries such as China. There is a need for trained personnel, drilling rigs of the right type, and adequate pipelines to put the new gas into. While these things are available in the United States, it likely will take years to develop adequate supplies of them elsewhere. All of the legislation that regulates drilling and enables pipeline building, needs to be in place as well. Laws need to be friendly to fracking, as well.

Growth in Exports to Date

Exports grew as a percentage of natural gas use through about 2007 or 2008.

Figure 7. World natural gas exports as percentage of total natural gas produced, by year, based on EIA data (older years) and BP’s 2102 Statistical Review of World Energy for 2010 and 2011.

In recent years, natural gas exports have fallen slightly as a percentage of total gas extracted. Thus, if world natural gas supplies have risen by an average of 2.7% per year for the past five years, exports available for import have risen a little less rapidly than the 2.7% per year increase. A major ramp-up in export capability would be needed to change this trend.

While we hear a lot about the rise in exports using LNG, its use does not seem to be adding to the overall percentage of natural gas exported. Instead, there has been a shift in the type of export capacity being added. There are still a few pipelines being added (such as the Nord Stream pipline, from Russia to Germany), but these are increasingly the exception.

The Shale Gas Pricing Debate

Exactly what price is needed for shale gas to be profitable is subject to debate. Shale gas requires the payment of huge up-front costs. Once they are drilled and “fracked,” they will produce for a long period. Company models assume that they will last as long as 40 years, but geologist Arthur Berman of The Oil Drum claims substantial numbers are closed down in as few as six years, because they are not producing enough natural gas to justify their ongoing costs. There is also a question as to whether the best locations are drilled first.

Logically a person would expect shale-gas to be quite a bit more expensive to produce than other natural gas because it is trapped in much smaller pores, and much more force is required to extracted it. In terms of the resource triangle that I sometimes show (Figure 8, below), it epitomizes the low quality, hard to extract resource near the bottom of the triangle that is available in abundance. We usually start at the top of the resource triangle, and extract the easiest and cheapest to extract first.

Figure 8. Author’s illustration of impacts of declining resource quality.

Berman claims that prices $8.68 or higher per million Btu are needed for profitability of Haynesville Shale, and nearly as high prices are needed to justify drilling other US shale plays. The current US price is about $3.50 per million Btu, so to be profitable, the price would need to be more than double the current US price. Prices for natural gas in Europe are much higher, averaging $11.08 per million Btu in September 2012, but shale gas extraction costs may be higher there as well.

The US Energy Information Administration admits it doesn’t know how the economics will work out, and gives a range of projected prices. It is clear from the actions of the natural gas industry that current prices are a problem. According to Baker Hughes, the number of drilling rigs engaged in natural gas drilling has dropped from 936 one year ago to 422, for the week ended October 12, 2012.

Backup for Renewables

One area where natural gas excels is as a back up for intermittent renewable energy, since it can ramp up and down quickly. So this is one area where a person might expect growth. Such a possibility is not certain, though:

1. How much will intermittent renewables continue to ramp up? Governments are getting poorer, and have less funds available to subsidize them. They do not compete well on when they go head to head with fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydroelectric.

2. When intermittent renewables are subsidized with feed in tariffs, and requirements that wind power be given priority over fossil fuels, it can provide such an unlevel playing field that it is difficult for natural gas to be profitable. This is especially the case in locations where natural gas is already higher-priced than coal.

The Societal “Recipe” Problem

Our economy is built of many interdependent parts. Each business is added, taking into account what businesses already are in place, and what laws are in effect. Because of the way the economy currently operates, it uses a certain proportion of oil, a certain proportion of natural gas, and more or less fixed proportions of other types of energy. The number of people employed tends to vary, too, with the size of the economy, with a larger economy demanding more employees.

Proportions of businesses and energy use can of course change over time. In fact, there is some flexibility built in. In particular, in the US, we have a surplus of natural gas electricity generating units, installed in the hope that they would be used more than they really are, and the energy traded long distance. But there is less flexibility elsewhere. The cars most people drive use gasoline, and the only way to cut back is to drive less. Our furnaces use a particular fuel, and apart from adjusting the temperature setting, or adding insulation, it is hard to make a change in this. We only make major changes when it comes time to sell a car, replace a furnace, or add a new factory.

In my view, the major issue the world has been dealing with in recent years is an inadequate supply of cheap oil. High priced oil tends to constrict the economy, because it causes consumers to cut back on discretionary spending. People in discretionary industries are laid off, and they tend to also spend less, and sometimes default on their loans. Governments find themselves in financial difficulty when they collect fewer taxes and need to pay out more in benefits. While this issue is still a problem in the US, the government has been able to cover up this effect up in several ways (ultra low interest rates, a huge amount of deficit spending, and “quantitive easing”). The effect is still there, and pushing us toward the “fiscal cliff.”

The one sure way to ramp up natural gas usage is for the economy as a whole to grow. If this happens, natural gas usage will grow for two reasons: (1) The larger economy will use more gas, and (2) the growth in the economy will add more opportunities for new businesses, and these new businesses will have the opportunity to utilize more natural gas, if the price is competitive.

I have compared the situation with respect to limited oil supply as being similar to that of a baker, who is trying to bake a batch of cookies that calls for two cups of flour, but who has only one cup of flour. The baker is able to make only half a batch. Half of the other ingredients will go unused as well, because the batch is small.

To me, discovering that we have more natural gas than we had before, is analogous to the baker discovering that instead of having a dozen eggs in his refrigerator, there are actually two dozen in his refrigerator. In fact, he finds he can even go and buy more eggs, if he is willing to pay double the price he is accustomed to paying. But the eggs really do not fix the missing cup of flour problem, unless someone can find a way to change eggs into flour very cheaply.

Basic Energy Types

To me, the most basic forms of energy resources are (1) coal and (2) oil. Both can be transported easily, if it is possible to extract them. Natural gas is very much harder to transport and store, so it is in many ways less useful. It can be made work in combination with oil and coal, because the use of coal and oil make it possible to build pipelines and make devices to provide compression to the gas. With coal and oil, it is also possible to make and maintain electric transmission lines to transport electricity made with natural gas.

I sometimes talk about renewable energy being a “fossil fuel extender,” because they hopefully make fossil fuels “go farther”. In some ways, I think natural gas is an extender for oil and coal. It is hard to imagine a society powered only by natural gas, because of the difficulties in using it, and the major changes required to use it exclusively.

In the earliest days, natural gas was simply a “waste product” of oil extraction. It was “flared” to get rid of it. In many parts of the world, natural gas is still flared, because the effort it takes to collect it, transport it, and make it into a useful product is still too high.

The hope that natural gas will be the world’s energy savior depends on our ability to make this former waste product into a product that will replace oil and coal. But unless we can put together an economy that needs and uses it, most of it probably will be left in the ground. The supposedly very high reserves will do us no good.

A Few Insights Regarding Today’s Nuclear Situation

Off the Keyboard of Gail Tverberg

Published originally on Our Finite World on August 14, 2012

Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord of the Diner

The issue of nuclear electricity is a complex one. In this post, I offer a few insights into the nuclear electric situation based on recent reports and statistical data.

Nuclear Electric Production Is Already Declining

Figure 1. World nuclear electric production split by major producing countries, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. FSU is Former Soviet Union.

According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, the highest year of nuclear electric production was 2006.

There are really two trends taking place, however.

1. The countries that adopted nuclear first, that is the United States, Europe, Japan, and Russia, have been experiencing flat to declining nuclear electricity production. The countries with actual declines in generation are Japan and some of the countries in Europe outside of France.

2. The countries that began adopting nuclear later, particularly the developing countries, are continuing to show growth. China and India in particular are adding nuclear production.

The long-term trend depends on how these two opposite trends balance out. There may also be new facilities built, and some “uprates” of old facilities, among existing large users of nuclear. Russia, in particular, has been mentioned as being interested in adding more nuclear.

Role of Nuclear in World Electricity

Nuclear provides a significant share of world electricity production, far more than any new alternative, making a change from nuclear to wind or solar PV difficult. If nuclear electricity use is reduced, the most likely outcome would seem to be a reduction in overall electricity supply or an increase in fossil fuel usage.

Figure 2. Based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy

Nuclear is the largest source of world electricity after fossil fuels and hydroelectric, comprising about 12% of total world electricity. Wind amounts to about 2% of world electric supply, and solar (which is not visible on Figure 2) amounts to one-quarter of one percent (0.25%). “Other renewable” includes electricity from a variety of sources, including geothermal and wood burned to produce electricity. These can’t be scaled up very far, either.

Note that even with the growth of renewables, there is still very substantial growth in fossil fuel use in recent years. If nuclear electricity use is reduced, fossil fuel use may grow by even a greater amount.

Role of Nuclear in Countries that Use Nuclear

The world situation shown in Figure 1 includes many countries that do not use nuclear at all, so the countries that do use nuclear tend to generate more than 12% of their electricity from nuclear. This means that if a decision is made to move away from nuclear, an even larger share of electricity must be replaced (or “be done without”).

Figure 3. Based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

For example, in the Untied States (Figure 3), nuclear now amounts to about 19% of US electricity production, and is second only to fossil fuels as an electricity source. US nuclear production tends to be concentrated in the Eastern part of the US, so that nuclear amounts to 30% to 35% of electric production along the US East Coast. This would be very difficult to replace by generation from another source, other than possibly fossil fuels.

For countries that are planning to reduce their nuclear generation, nuclear electricity as a percentage of total electric production in 2010  are as follows:

  • Germany, 22%;
  • Switzerland, 37%;
  • Belgium, 52%; and
  • Japan 25%.

Unless these countries can count on imports from elsewhere, it will be difficult to make up the entire amount of electricity lost through demand reduction, or through a shift to renewables.

Nuclear Electric Plants that are “Paid for” Generate Electricity Very Cheaply

Nuclear power plants for which the capital costs are already “sunk” are very inexpensive to operate, with operating costs estimated at 2 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Any kind of change away from nuclear is likely to require the substitution of more expensive generation of some other type.

The electrical rates in place today in Europe and the United States today take into account the favorable cost structure for nuclear, and thus help keep electrical rates low, especially for commercial users (since they usually get the best rates).

If new generation is added to substitute for the paid off nuclear, it almost certainly will raise electricity rates. These higher rates will be considered by businesses in their decisions regarding where to locate new facilities, and perhaps result in more of a shift in manufacturing to developing nations.

Germany’s Experience in Leaving Nuclear

It is too early to know exactly what Germany’s experience will be in leaving nuclear, but its early experiences provide some insights.

One cost is decommissioning. According to Reuters, German nuclear companies have made a total of $30 billion euros ($36.7 billion) in provision for costs related to the cost of dismantling the plants and disposing of radioactive materials. According to the same article, Greenpeace expects the cost may exceed 44 billion euros ($53.8 billion). If the amount of installed nuclear capacity in Germany is 20.48 million kilowatts (kW), the direct cost of dismantling the nuclear reactors and handling the spent fuel ranges from $1,792 to $2,627 per kW. This cost is greater than the Chinese and Indian cost of building a comparable amount of new reactor capacity (discussed later in this article).

David Buchanan of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies did an analysis of some of the issues Germany is facing in making the change. Germany was in an unusually favorable situation because it had a cushion of spare capacity when it decided to close its reactors. When Germany closed its oldest eight reactors, one issue it discovered was lack of transmission capacity to transfer wind energy from the North to areas in the South and Southwest of Germany, where the closed reactors were located. In addition, the system needs additional balancing capability, either through more natural gas generation (because gas generators can ramp up and down quickly), or more electric storage, or both.

In Germany, natural gas is an expensive imported source of energy. The economics of the situation are not such that private companies are willing to build natural gas generation facilities, because the economics don’t work: (a) renewables get first priority in electricity purchases and (b) electricity from locally produced coal also gets priority over electricity from gas, because it is cheaper.  If new gas generation is to be built, it appears that these plants may need to be subsidized as well.

Increased efficiency and demand response programs are also expected to play a role in balancing demand with supply.

Not All Countries Have the Same High Nuclear Electricity Costs

We don’t really know the cost of new nuclear electricity plants in the United States, because it has been so long since a new plants were built. The new reactors which are now under construction in the state of Georgia will provide a total of 2,200 MW of generation capacity at a cost estimated at $14.9 billion, which means an average cost of $6,773/kW.

In China and India, costs are lower, and may drop even lower in the future, as the Chinese apply their techniques and low-cost labor to bring costs down.  The World Nuclear Association (WNA) in its section on China makes the statement,

Standard construction time is 52 months, and the claimed unit cost is under CNY 10,000 (US$ 1500) per kilowatt (kW), though other estimates put it at about $2000/kW.

In the section on nuclear power for India, the WNA quotes construction costs ranging from $1,200/kW to $1,700/kW, using its own technology.

If we compare the cost of  US planned plants in Georgia to the Chinese and Indian plants, the cost seems to be three or four times as high.

These cost differences also appear in comparisons on a “Levelized Cost” basis. The EIA in its 2012 Annual Energy Outlook quotes an US expected levelized cost of nuclear of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), anticipated for facilities being constructed now. The section on the Economics of Nuclear Power of the WNA quotes levelized costs in the 3 to 5 cents per kWh range for China, depending on the interest rate assumed. A cost in the 3 to 5 cents range is very good, competitive with coal and with natural gas, when they are inexpensive, as they are now in the United States.

Some of China’s nuclear reactors were purchased from the United States, and thus will be higher in cost because of the purchased components. But knowing that China has a reputation for “reverse engineering” products it buys, and figuring out how to make cheap imitations, I expect that it  will be able to figure out ways to create low-cost reactors in the near future, whether or not it can do so today. So the expectation is that China and India will be able to make cheap reactors (probably without all the safety devices that some other countries currently require) for itself, and quite likely, eventually for sale to others. Sales of such reactors may eventually undercut sales by American and French companies.

Interest in Purchasing Reactors

The interest in purchasing electricity generation of all kinds is likely to be greater in developing countries where the economy is growing and the need for electricity generation is growing, than in the stagnant economies of the United States, Europe, and Japan. If we look at a graph of electricity production of Asia-Pacific excluding Japan, we see a very rapid growth in electricity use.

Figure 4. Asia-Pacific Excluding Japan Electricity by Source, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review.

The Middle East (Figure 5, below) is another area with an interest in nuclear. It too has shown rapid growth in electricity use, and a historical base of mostly fossil use for electricity generation.

Figure 5. Middle East Electricity by Source, based on data of the BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Use of Thorium Instead of Uranium Would Seem to be a Better Choice, if It Can be Made to Work

I have not tried to research this subject, except to note that research in this area is currently being done that may eventually lead to its use.

Uranium Production is a Problem

World uranium production fell a bit in 2011, relative to 2010, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Figure 6. World Uranium Production, based on data of the World Nuclear Association.

Production from Kazakhstan is becoming an increasingly large share of the total. Production in both the US and Canada declined in 2011. Spot prices have tended to stay low, in spite of the fact that an agreement that allowed the US to buy recycled Russian bomb material reaches an end in 2013. There are no doubt some stockpiles, but the WNA estimates 2011 production to equal to only 85% of current demand (including military demand).

Figure 7. World Uranium Production and Demand, in an image prepared by the World Nuclear Association.

A person would think that prices would rise higher, to incentivize increased production, but this doesn’t seem to be happening yet, at least. The uranium consulting firm Ux Consulting offers the following comment on its website:

The market that we now find ourselves in is like no other in the history of uranium. Production is far below requirements, which are growing. HEU [highly enriched uranium] supplies and the enrichment of tails material make up a large portion of supply, but the fate of these supply sources is uncertain. Supply has become more concentrated, making the market more vulnerable to disruptions if there are any problems with a particular supply source. Another source of market vulnerability is the relatively low level of inventory held by buyers and sellers alike.

The consulting firm ends the section with a pitch for its $5,000 report on the situation.

A person would like to think that additional production will be ramped up quickly, or that the US military would find some inventory. Markets don’t always work well at incentivizing a need for future production, especially when more or less adequate current supplies are available when Russian recycled bomb material is included. The discontinuity comes when those extra supplies disappear.

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In reply to Ken Barrows. Back to 10 mpb per day. Recovering from Laura, I guess. [...]

First of all, thanks for the recent back-to-back articles Steve. Always nice to pop in here and know [...]

@sp gp [...]

RE Economics

Going Cashless

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Simplifying the Final Countdown

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Bond Market Collapse and the Banning of Cash

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Do Central Bankers Recognize there is NO GROWTH?

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Singularity of the Dollar

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Kurrency Kollapse: To Print or Not To Print?

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Of Heat Sinks & Debt Sinks: A Thermodynamic View of Money

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Merry Doomy Christmas

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Peak Customers: The Final Liquidation Sale

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Collapse Fiction

Useful Links

Technical Journals

The anticipated climate change during the next decades is posing crucial challenges to ecosystems. I [...]

Since the impacts of climate change will last for many years, adaptation to this phenomenon should b [...]

Understanding the variability of rainfall is important for sustaining rain-dependent agriculture and [...]

The Kunduz River is one of the main tributaries of the Amu Darya Basin in North Afghanistan. Many co [...]