Energy limits: Why we see rising wealth disparity and low prices

Last week, I gave a fairly wide-ranging presentation at the 2016 Biophysical Economics Conference called Complexity: The Connection Between Fossil Fuel EROI, Human Energy EROI, and Debt (pdf). In this post, I discuss the portion of the talk that explains several key issues:

  1. Why we are right now seeing so many problems with respect to wealth disparity and low commodity prices (Answer: World per capita energy consumption is already falling, and the energy/economy system needs to reflect this problem somehow.)
  2. Why the quest for growing technology leads to growing wealth disparity (Answer: The economy must be configured in more of a hierarchical pattern to support growing “complexity.” Growing complexity is the precursor to growing technology.)
  3. Why rising debt is an integral part of the energy/economy system (Answer: We could not pay workers for making long-lasting goods and services without using debt to “pull forward” the hoped-for benefit of these goods and services to the present, using debt and other equivalent approaches.)
  4. Why commodity prices can suddenly fall below the cost of production for a wide range of products (Answer: Prices of commodities depend to a significant extent on debt levels. A major problem is that when commodity prices rise, wages do not rise in a corresponding manner. Rising debt levels can mask the growing lack of affordability for a while, but eventually, debt levels cannot be raised sufficiently, and commodity prices fall too low.)
  5. The Brexit vote may be related to falling energy per capita in the UK. Given that this problem occurs in many countries, it may be increasingly difficult to keep the Eurozone and other similar international organizations together.
  6. My talk also touches on the topic of why a steady state economy is not possible, unless we can live like chimpanzees.

My analysis has as its premise that the economy behaves like other physical systems. It needs energy–and, in fact, growing energy–to operate. If the system does not get the energy it needs, it “rebalances” in a way that may not be to our liking. See my article, “The Physics of Energy and the Economy.”

An outline of my talk is shown as Slide 2, below. I will omit the EROI and Hubbert model portions of the presentation.   Continue reading

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China: Is peak coal part of its problem?

The world’s coal resources are clearly huge. How could China, or the world in total, reach peak coal in a timeframe that makes a difference?

If we look at China’s coal production and consumption in BP’s 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy (SRWE), this is what we see:

Figure 1. China's production and consumption of coal based on BP 2016 SRWE.

Figure 1. China’s production and consumption of coal based on BP 2016 SRWE.

Figure 2 shows that the quantities of other fuels are increasing in a pattern similar to past patterns. None of them is large enough to make a real difference in offsetting the loss of coal consumption. Renewables (really “other renewables”) include wind, solar, geothermal, and wood burned to produce electricity. This category is still tiny in comparison to coal.

Figure 2. China's energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

Figure 2. China’s energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

Why would a country selectively decide to slow down the growth of the fuel that has made its current “boom” possible? Coal is generally cheaper than other fuels. The fact that China has a lot of low-cost coal, and can use it together with its cheap labor, has allowed China to manufacture goods very inexpensively, and thus be very competitive in world markets.

In my view, China really had no choice regarding the cutback in coal production–market forces were pushing for less production of goods, and this was playing out as lower commodity prices of many types, including coal, oil, and natural gas, plus many types of metals.

China is mostly self-sufficient in coal production, but it is a major importer of natural gas and oil. Lower oil and natural gas prices made imported fuels of these types more affordable, and thus encouraged more importing of these products. At the same time, lower coal prices made many of China’s mines unprofitable, leading to a need to cut back on production. Thus we see the rather bizarre result: consumption of the cheapest energy product (coal) is falling first. We will discuss this issue more later.

China’s Overall Historical Production of Energy Products Continue reading

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$50 Oil Doesn’t Work

$50 per barrel oil is clearly less impossible to live with than $30 per barrel oil, because most businesses cannot make a profit with $30 per barrel oil. But is $50 per barrel oil helpful?

I would argue that it really is not.

When oil was over $100 per barrel, human beings in many countries were getting the benefit of most of that high oil price:

  • Some of the $100 per barrel goes as wages to the employees of the oil company who extracted the oil.
  • Often, the oil company contracts with another company to do part of the oil extraction. Part of the $100 per barrel is paid as wages to employees of the subcontracting companies.
  • An oil company buys many goods, such as steel pipe, which are made by others. Part of the $100 per barrel goes to employees of the companies making the goods that the oil company buys.
  • An oil company pays taxes. These taxes are used to fund many programs, including new roads, schools, and transfer payments to the elderly and unemployed. Again, these funds go to actual people, as wages, or as transfer payments to people who cannot work.
  • An oil company pays dividends to stockholders. Some of the stockholders are individuals; others are pension funds, insurance companies, and other companies. Pension funds use the dividends to make pension payments to individuals. Insurance companies use the dividends to make insurance premiums affordable. One way or another, these dividends act to create benefits for individuals.
  • Interest payments on debt go to bondholders or to the bank making the loan. Pension plans and insurance companies often own the bonds. These interest payments go to pay pension payments of individuals or to help make insurance premiums more affordable.
  • A company may have accumulated profits that are not paid out in dividends and taxes. Typically, they are reinvested in the company, allowing more people to have jobs. In some cases, the value of the stock may rise as well.

When the price falls from $100 per barrel to $50 per barrel, the incomes of many people are adversely affected. This is a huge negative with respect to world economic growth.

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The real oil limits story; what other researchers missed

For a long time, a common assumption has been that the world will eventually “run out” of oil and other non-renewable resources. Instead, we seem to be running into surpluses and low prices. What is going on that was missed by M. King Hubbert, Harold Hotelling, and by the popular understanding of supply and demand?

The underlying assumption in these models is that scarcity would appear before the final cutoff of consumption. Hubbert looked at the situation from a geologist’s point of view in the 1950s to 1980s, without an understanding of the extent to which geological availability could change with higher price and improved technology. Harold Hotelling’s work came out of the conservationist movement of 1890 to 1920, which was concerned about running out of non-renewable resources. Those using supply and demand models have equivalent concerns–too little fossil fuel supply relative to demand, especially when environmental considerations are included.

Virtually no one realizes that the economy is a self-organized networked system. There are many interconnections within the system. The real situation is that as prices rise, supply tends to rise as well, because new sources of production become available at the higher price. At the same time, demand tends to fall for a variety of reasons:

  • Lower affordability
  • Lower productivity growth
  • Falling relative wages of non-elite workers

The potential mismatch between amount of supply and demand is exacerbated by the oversized role that debt plays in determining the level of commodity prices. Because the oil problem is one of diminishing returns, adding debt becomes less and less profitable over time. There is a potential for a sharp decrease in debt from a combination of defaults and planned debt reductions, leading to very much lower oil prices, and severe problems for oil producers. Financial institutions tend to be badly affected as well. If a person looks at only past history, the situation looks secure, but it really is not.

Figure 1. By Merzperson at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2570936

Figure 1. By Merzperson at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2570936

Substitutes aren’t really helpful; they tend to be high-priced and dependent on the use of fossil fuels, including oil. They cannot possibly operate on their own. They add to the “oversupply at high prices” problem, but don’t really fix the need for low-priced supply.

Why supply tends to rise as prices rise

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Debt: The Key Factor Connecting Energy and the Economy

There are many who believe that the use of energy is critical to the growth of the economy. In fact, I am among these people. The thing that is not as apparent is that growth in energy consumption is dependent on the growth of debt. Both energy and debt have characteristics that are close to “magic” with respect to the growth of the economy. Economic growth can only take place when growing debt (or a very close substitute, such as company stock) is available to enable the use of energy products.

The reason why debt is important is because energy products enable the creation of many kinds of capital goods, and these goods are often bought with debt. Commercial examples would include metal tools, factories, refineries, pipelines, electricity generation plants, electricity transmission lines, schools, hospitals, roads, gold coins, and commercial vehicles. Consumers also benefit because energy products allow the production of houses and apartments, automobiles, busses, and passenger trains. In a sense, the creation of these capital goods is one form of “energy profit” that is obtained from the consumption of energy.

The reason debt is needed is because while energy products can indeed produce a large “energy profit,” this energy profit is spread over many years in the future. In order to actually be able to obtain the benefit of this energy profit in a timeframe where the economy can use it, the financial system needs to bring forward some or all of the energy profit to an earlier timeframe. It is only when businesses can do this, that they have money to pay workers. This time shifting also allows businesses to earn a financial profit themselves. Governments indirectly benefit as well, because they can then tax the higher wages of workers and businesses, so that governmental services can be provided, including paved roads and good schools.

Debt and Other Promises

Clearly, if the economy were producing only items for current consumption–for example, if hunters and gatherers were only finding food to eat and sticks to burn, so that they could cook this food, then there would be no need for the time shifting function of debt. But there would likely still be a need for promises, such as, “If you will hunt for food, I will gather plant food and care for the children.” With the use of promises, it is possible to have division of labor and economies of scale. Promises allow a business to pay workers at the end of the month, instead of every day.

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