Recession Ahead: An Overview of Our Predicament

Many people have the impression that recessions come from financial missteps, such as the US subprime loan fiasco. If energy is involved at all, the problem comes from high oil prices as supply becomes inadequate to meet demand.

The real situation is different. We already seem to be on the road toward a new crisis; this crisis is likely to be much worse than the Great Recession of 2008-2009. This time, a major problem is likely to be energy prices that are too low for producers. Last time, a major problem was oil prices that were too high for consumers. The problem is different, but it is in some ways symmetric.

Last time, the United States seemed to be the epicenter; this time, my analysis indicates China is likely to be the epicenter. Last time, the world economy was coming off a high growth period; this time, the world economy is already somewhat depressed, even before hitting headwinds. These differences, plus the strange physics-based way that the world economy is organized, explain why the outcome seems likely to be worse this time than in 2008-2009.

I recently explained what I see as happening in a presentation for actuaries: Recession Likely: Expect a Bend in Trend Lines. This post is based on this presentation, omitting the strictly insurance-related portions.

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Do the World’s Energy Policies Make Sense?

The world today has a myriad of energy policies. One of them seems to be to encourage renewables, especially wind and solar. Another seems to be to encourage electric cars. A third seems to be to try to move away from fossil fuels. Countries in Europe and elsewhere have been trying carbon taxes. There are also programs to buy carbon offsets for energy uses such as air travel.

Maybe it is time to step back and take a look. Where are we now? Where are we really headed? Have the policies implemented since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 had any positive impact?

Let’s look at some of the issues involved.

[1] We have had very little success in reducing CO2 emissions.

CO2 emissions for all countries, in total, have been spiraling upward, year after year.

World CO2 Emissions

Figure 1. Carbon dioxide emissions for the world, based on BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy.

If we look at the situation by part of the world, we see an even more concerning pattern.

Figure 2. Carbon dioxide emissions by part of the world through 2018, based on BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy. Soviet Empire is an approximation including Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, based on the BP report. It would not include Cuba and North Korea.

The group US+EU+Japan has been able to reduce its CO2 emissions by 5% since 2005. Emissions were slowly rising between 1981 and 2005. There was a dip at the time of the Great Recession of 2008-2009, followed by a downward trend. A person might get the impression that CO2 emissions for the EU tend to rise during periods when the economy is doing well and tend to fall when it is doing poorly.

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How Renewable Energy Models Can Produce Misleading Indications

The energy needs of the world’s economy seem to be easy to model. Energy consumption is measured in a variety of different ways including kilowatt hours, barrels of oil equivalent, British thermal units, kilocalories and joules. Two types of energy are equivalent if they produce the same number of units of energy, right?

For example, xkcd’s modeler Randall Munroe explains the benefit of renewable energy in the video below. He tells us that based on his model, solar, if scaled up to ridiculous levels, can provide enough renewable energy for ourselves and a half-dozen of our neighbors. Wind, if scaled up to absurd levels, can provide enough renewable energy for ourselves and a dozen of our neighbors.

There is a major catch to this analysis, however. The kinds of energy produced by wind and solar are not the kinds of energy that the economy needs. Wind and solar produce intermittent electricity available only at specific times and places. What the world economy needs is a variety of different energy types that match the energy requirements of the many devices in place in the world today. This energy needs to be transported to the right place and saved for the right time of day and the right time of year. There may even be a need to store this energy from year to year, because of possible droughts.

I think of the situation as being analogous to researchers deciding that it would be helpful or more efficient if humans could change their diets to 100% grass in the next 20 years. Grass is a form of energy product, but it is not the energy product that humans normally consume. It doesn’t seem to be toxic to humans in small quantities. It seems to grow quite well. Switching to the use of grass for food would seem to be beneficial from a CO2 perspective. The fact that humans have not evolved to eat grass is similar to the fact that the manufacturing and transport sectors of today’s economy have not developed around the use of intermittent electricity from wind and solar.

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Understanding Why the Green New Deal Won’t Really Work

The reasons why the Green New Deal won’t really work are fairly subtle. A person really has to look into the details to see what goes wrong. In this post, I try to explain at least a few of the issues involved.

[1] None of the new renewables can easily be relied upon to produce enough energy in winter. 

The world’s energy needs vary, depending on location. In locations near the poles, there will be a significant need for light and heat during the winter months. Energy needs will be relatively more equal throughout the year near the equator.

Solar energy is particularly a problem in winter. In northern latitudes, if utilities want to use solar energy to provide electricity in winter, they will likely need to build several times the amount of solar generation capacity required for summer to have enough electricity available for winter.

Figure 1. US daily average solar production, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

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Our Energy and Debt Predicament in 2019

Many people are concerned that we have an oil problem. Or they are concerned about recession and the need to lower interest rates.

As I see the situation, we have a problem of a networked economy that is not functioning well. A big part of this problem is energy-related. Strange as it may seem, energy prices (including oil prices) are too low for producers. If debt levels were growing more rapidly, this low-price problem would go away.

The “standard way” of encouraging more debt-based purchases is by lowering interest rates. But we are running out of room to do this now. We also seem to be running out of economic investments to make with debt. If expected returns on investment were greater, interest rates would be higher.

Without economic investments, demand for commodities of all kinds, including energy products, tends to stay too low. This is the problem we have today. Our debt problem and our energy problem are really different aspects of a networked economy that is no longer generating enough total return. History suggests that these periods tend to end badly.

In the following sections, I will explain some of the issues involved.

[1] Our problem is not just that oil prices are too low. Prices are too low for practically every type of energy producer, and in many parts of the globe.

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