Why Standard Economic Models Don’t Work–Our Economy is a Network

The story of energy and the economy seems to be an obvious common sense one: some sources of energy are becoming scarce or overly polluting, so we need to develop new ones. The new ones may be more expensive, but the world will adapt. Prices will rise and people will learn to do more with less. Everything will work out in the end. It is only a matter of time and a little faith. In fact, the Financial Times published an article recently called “Looking Past the Death of Peak Oil” that pretty much followed this line of reasoning.

Energy Common Sense Doesn’t Work Because the World is Finite 

The main reason such common sense doesn’t work is because in a finite world, every action we take has many direct and indirect effects. This chain of effects produces connectedness that makes the economy operate as a network. This network behaves differently than most of us would expect. This networked behavior is not reflected in current economic models.

Most people believe that the amount of oil in the ground is the limiting factor for oil extraction. In a finite world, this isn’t true. In a finite world, the limiting factor is feedback loops that lead to inadequate wages, inadequate debt growth, inadequate tax revenue, and ultimately inadequate funds for investment in oil extraction. The behavior of networks may lead to economic collapses of oil exporters, and even to a collapse of the overall economic system.

An issue that is often overlooked in the standard view of oil limits is diminishing returns. With diminishing returns, the cost of extraction eventually rises because the easy-to-obtain resources are extracted first. For a time, the rising cost of extraction can be hidden by advances in technology and increased mechanization, but at some point, the inflation-adjusted cost of oil production starts to rise.

With diminishing returns, the economy is, in effect, becoming less and less efficient, instead of becoming more and more efficient. As this effect feeds through the system, wages tend to fall and the economy tends to shrink rather than grow. Because of the way a networked system “works,” this shrinkage tends to collapse the economy. The usage of  energy products of all kinds is likely to fall, more or less simultaneously.

In some ways current, economic models are the equivalent of flat maps, when we live in a spherical world. These models work pretty well for a while, but eventually, their predictions deviate further and further from reality. The reason our models of the future are wrong is because we are not imagining the system correctly. Continue reading

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IEA Investment Report – What is Right; What is Wrong

Recently, the IEA published  a “Special Report” called World Energy Investment Outlook. Lets’s start with things I agree with:

1. World needs $48 trillion in investment to meet its energy needs to 2035. This is certainly true, if we assume, as the IEA assumes, that world economic growth will actually improve a bit, from 3.3% per year in the 1990 to 2011 period to 3.6% per year in the 2011 to 2035 period. It is likely that the growth in investment needs will be even higher than the IEA indicates.

In my view, this is a CYA report. The IEA sees trouble ahead. There is no way that investment of the needed amount (which is likely far more than $48 trillion) can be met. With the publication of this report, the IEA can say, “We told you so. You didn’t invest enough. That is why energy supply ran into huge problems.”

2. Without reform to power markets, the reliability of Europe’s electricity supply is under threat. The current pricing model, in which wind and solar PV get feed in tariffs and electricity prices for other fuels is set using merit order pricing, produces huge market distortions.

In my view, the problem is even worse than the writers of the report understand. The value of wind and solar PV are inherently difficult to determine, because they produce intermittent supply, and this is not comparable to other types of electricity. Furthermore, a big chunk of costs relate to transmission and distribution–42% of electricity investment costs in the New Policies Scenario. Many well-meaning researchers looked at wind and solar PV and thought they were a solution, but they tended to look at the situation too narrowly.

To look at the situation properly, one really needs to look at the total system cost of generating electricity with intermittent renewables (of a given amount) compared to the total system cost of generating electricity without intermittent renewables. Proper pricing needs to include all of the additional costs involved, including the additional cost for storage, the additional cost for long distance transmission, and the additional costs encountered by fossil fuel providers in ramping up and down their generation to match changing output from intermittent renewables.

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Converging Energy Crises – And How our Current Situation Differs from the Past

At the Age of Limits Conference, I gave a talk called Converging Crises (PDF), talking about the crises facing us as we reach energy limits. In this post, I discuss some highlights from a fairly long talk.

A related topic is how our current situation is different from past collapses. John Michael Greer talked about prior collapses, but because both of our talks were late in the conference and because I was leaving to catch a plane, we never had a chance to discuss how “this time is different.” To fill this gap, I have included some comments on this subject at the end of this post.

The Nature of our Current Crisis

Figure 1

Figure 1

The first three crises are the basic ones: population growth, resource depletion, and environmental degradation. The other crises are not as basic, but still may act to bring the system down. Continue reading

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The Connection Between Oil Prices, Debt Levels, and Interest Rates

If oil is “just another commodity,” then there shouldn’t be any connection between oil prices, debt levels, interest rates, and total rates of return. But there clearly is a connection.

On one hand, spikes in oil prices are connected with recessions. According to economist James Hamilton, ten out of eleven post-World War II recessions have been associated with spikes in oil prices. There also is a logical reason for oil prices spikes to be associated with recession: oil is used in making and transporting food, and in commuting to work. These are necessities for most people. If these costs rise, there is a need to cut back on non-essential goods, leading to layoffs in discretionary sectors, and thus recession.

On the other hand, the manipulation of interest rates and the addition of governmental debt (by spending more than is collected in tax dollars) are the primary ways of “fixing” recession. According to Keynesian economics, output is strongly influenced by aggregate demand–in other words, total spending in the economy. Any approach that can increase total spending–either more debt, or more affordable debt will increase economic output.

What is the Direct Connection Between Increased Debt and Oil Prices?

The economy doesn’t just grow by itself (contrary to the belief of many economists). It grows because affordable energy products allow raw materials to be transformed into finished products. Increased debt helps energy products become more affordable.

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Without debt, not a very large share of the total population could afford a car or a new home. In fact, most businesses could not afford new factories, without debt. The price of commodities of all sorts would drop off dramatically without the availability of debt, because there would be less demand for the commodities that are used to make goods. Continue reading

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Russia and the Ukraine – The Worrisome Connection to World Oil and Gas Problems

What is behind the Russia/Ukraine problem? It seems to me that what we are seeing is Russia’s attempt to fix a two-part problem:

  1. Some oil and gas exporters, including Russia, are not receiving enough oil and gas revenue to meet their needs. They are not able to collect enough taxes to provide the services they have promised to their citizens, plus allow the amount of reinvestment that is needed to maintain production. Russia is starting to experience economic contraction because of the low revenue situation. This situation very closely related similar problems I have written about  previously. In one post I talked about major independent oil companies not producing enough profit to provide the revenue needed for reinvestment, and because of this, cutting back on new investment. In another, I talked about the problem of too low US natural gas sales prices, relative to the cost of extraction.
  2. Some oil and gas importers, including Ukraine, are not using their imported oil and gas in productive enough ways that they are able to afford to pay the market price for oil and gas. Russia gave Ukraine a lower natural gas price because some of Russia’s pipelines cross Ukraine, and Ukraine must maintain the pipeline. But even with this lower natural gas price, Ukraine is behind on its payments to Russia.

If a person thinks about the situation, it looks a lot like a situation where the world is reaching limits on oil and gas production. The marginal producers (including Russia) are being pushed out, at the same time that the marginal consumers (including Ukraine) are being pushed out.

Russia is trying to fix this situation, as best it can. One part of its approach is to make certain that Ukraine will in fact pay at least the European market price for natural gas. To do this, Russia will make Ukraine prepay for its natural gas; otherwise it will cut off its gas supply. Russia is also looking for new customers who can afford to pay higher prices  for natural gas. In particular, Russia is working on a contract to sell LNG to China, quite possibly reducing the amount of natural gas it has available to sell to Europe. Russia is also signing a $10 billion contract with Iran in which it promises to construct new hydroelectric and thermal energy plants in Iran, in return for oil exports from Iran. This contract will increase the amount of oil Russia has to sell, and will increase the oil available on the world market. Russia’s plan will do an end run around US and European sanctions.

Gradually, or perhaps not so gradually, Russia’s exports are being redirected to those who can afford to pay higher prices. European Union purchases of natural gas imports have declined since 2008, presumably because they are having difficulty affording the current price of gas, so they are being relied on less for future sales.

The Russian approach seems to include building a new axis of power, including Russia, China, Iran and perhaps other countries. This new axis of power may threaten the US dollar’s reserve currency status. With the dollar as reserve currency, the US has been able to buy far more goods from other countries than it sells to others. Putting an end to the US dollar as reserve currency would leave more and oil and gas for other countries. If purchases by the US are cut back, it will leave more oil and gas for other countries. The danger is that prices will drop too low because of the drop in US demand, leading to lower production. It this should happen, everyone might lose out.

I am doubtful that Russia’s approach to fixing its problems will work. But if Russia is “between a rock and a hard place,” I can understand its willingness to try something very different. It now has more power than it has had in the past because of its oil and gas exports, and is willing to use that power.

The US/European approach to this problem is to loan Ukraine $17 billion to pay for past natural gas bills. The hope is that with this loan, Ukraine will be able to make changes that will allow it to afford future natural gas bills. There is also the hope that the United States can step in with large natural gas exports to Europe and Ukraine. In addition, the US and Europe are trying to impose sanctions on Russia.

I find it very difficult to believe that the US/European approach will work. The idea that the United States can start exporting huge amounts of natural gas to Europe in the near future borders on the bizarre. There are many hurdles that would need to be overcome for this to happen. Installing LNG export facilities is among the least of these hurdles.

In fact, the West badly needs both the oil and gas that Russia is producing, so it really is in a very precarious position. If Russia cuts off exports, or if Russia is forced to cut off exports because of financial difficulties, both the US and Europe will suffer. It is clear that Europe will suffer because of its dependence on pipeline exports of oil and gas from Russia. But the US will suffer as well, because the US is tied closely to Europe by financial ties, and by import and export arrangements with Europe.

Furthermore, the US/European approach involves a great deal of new debt, in an attempt to fix an inherent inability of the Ukrainian economy to afford high energy prices. Without a huge transformation, Ukraine will be in even more financial difficulty when it comes time to pay back the new debt–it will need make debt payments at the same time that it needs to pay for more expensive future natural gas. More debt doesn’t necessarily fix the situation; it may make it worse.

The US powers that be do not understand what Russia (and the world) is up against, so the policies they propose are likely to make the situation worse, rather than better.

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